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Posts Tagged ‘New England’

Between getting organized for my now twice-monthly column (stay tuned for tomorrow’s edition) and taking a few days off to go to NYC with Teen the Younger, I haven’t had as much time to read for pleasure, unless you count restaurant reviews, which are pleasurable in their own way, and Playbills.

But this week I finished a book I’d started before our trip, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  There’s plenty to like right away in this book — it opens on a ferry, and I love ferries. It takes place on a small New England island with a bookstore and I love small New England islands and bookstores. And the story moves along quickly at first.

A.J. Fikry is the somewhat curmudgeonly owner, Amelia Loman is a publishing sales rep., en route to pitch the winter list. Amelia is a “bright-sider” by nature, but the meeting doesn’t go well. Readers quickly learn that Fikry’s wife died, and he’s drinking himself into oblivion. But one night Fikry’s copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane — a very rare book — is stolen while he’s in a stupor. A short time later, a two-year old, Maya, is left in the bookstore with a note saying “I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.” Fikry and his new friend, Chief Lambiase, try to figure out how a bachelor running a “persnickety bookstore” who knows nothing about children might take care of Maya.

As the book goes on readers find out what happens to Fikry, Maya, Amelia, and Lambiase, as well as Fikry’s former sister-in-law, Ismay. Each chapter opens with a note about a story Fikry wants Maya to know about, with references to some of the other characters’ reading taste, and these little introductions relate in some way to the plot. They are also excellent primers on some terrific short fiction, sure to lead to further reading.The whole thing taken together makes for a pleasant read about reading, about life, about the fictions we believe and those we tell. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is also about family, and the way “shared sensibility” can build bonds even stronger than blood ties. And of course it’s a story of love in its many forms.

If I sound a little less than enthusiastic it’s because I liked it but didn’t love it. Some of the twists were too obvious, some of the story was maudlin, some of the characters a little too much to type. When Zevin allows them to be a little more flawed, a little more human, they’re more interesting than when she paints them into the quirky sales rep., the gruff but kindhearted police chief, the cranky store owner, the precocious child loved by all, etc. But I’d still recommend this novel to readers willing to overlook some flaws. Lambiase in particular is a wonderful supporting character. And this book is ultimately both warm-blooded and True, which is what all fiction should be.

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After visiting England in May, it was hard not to get caught up in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June, especially since I was already a fan of the royal family. So in addition to a hodge-podge of other books, I read a couple of biographies of Her Majesty, recommended in the Jubilee edition of Tatler, which I read on the plane home.

First, I read Elizabeth the Queen: the Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell SmithTatler suggested this book as “anecdotal” and “entertaining,” but I learned some things as well, particularly about the monarch’s constitutional role and her family history. But Tatler is right, it is also a dishy book (as much as one can dish on an ultra-discreet person like Queen Elizabeth), providing all sorts of tidbits about Elizabeth’s everyday life, down to the tupperware cereal containers on her breakfast table and the painful details about family troubles over the years.

Even though I’ve more or less followed the royals from afar since I was a teen, many details in this thorough book surprised me. Bedell Smith quotes from some very poignant letters Prince Philip and Diana exchanged as he tried to help her deal with her marital troubles. Also, I knew the Queen is into horses but didn’t realize the extent of her enormous business breeding, training, and racing them, nor did I know that she pretty much put the original “Horse Whisperer,” a trainer named Monty Roberts, on the map when she decided her trainers would adopt his methods after a demonstration. Bedell Smith’s tone is mostly admiring; where she critiques, she is very gentle.

Andrew Marr’s biography, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, is shorter and looks a little harder at the monarchy itself, and spends time speculating on what may be in store under King Charles (or whatever royal moniker he chooses). Marr, according to Tatler, “turned monarchist” during this project, which also resulted in a three-part BBC documentary. His tone, while no less respectful and admiring of the Queen herself, is slightly more skeptical of royalty than Bedell Smith’s. Marr seems to be concerned that Charles has too many personal agendas to rule with the dignity and detachment his mother has mastered. Marr portrays him as an opinionated person surrounded by “yes” men who are chafing a the bit to run Buckingham Palace their way.

But it’s no tell-all; Marr’s book is elegant, his tone a little like listening to a favorite college professor, as he reaches into culture, history politics, and current affairs to illuminate his points. He argues that the monarchy is “a kind of release valve” for British society, and that the current Queen is aware that it is her position that is special, not herself. He points to this humble devotion as the reason she is both popular and effective.  Marr explains that her longevity, which represents continuity through all political seasons and whims, provides the British people with a democratic figurehead. The Queen, he believes, is someone who truly represents all the British, no matter who they vote for, no matter what they believe.

Bedell Smith does cover politics but mainly from a historical/biographical point of view.  Her book looks in more detail at the personal and emotional life of the Queen and the way she has held up over years of tireless work on behalf of her country. Both books are very interesting and each in their own way offer an excellent insiders view of the workings of palace life.

Before we leave Britain behind, I just read one of the poetry books I won in a Cinnamon Press mini contest last year, Daniel Healy‘s Facsimiles.  I really enjoyed it. These are short poems, mostly in stanzas of two or three lines.

Healy uses strong images, often with a figurative punchline, as in “Impression.” The poem reads, “Light rain/at the harbour/a cold wind/catches the nets/a woman’s hair/black with water/the cut of waves/mapping the air.”  For the first six lines, a clear, vivid, imagistic poem, and then those last two lines, “the cut of waves/mapping the air” take the poem to a more imaginative level.

In some cases Healy leans more heavily on metaphor, as in  “Vista” “For once/the sky is perfect,/a collage/ of half-remembered/images turning/the right/shade of blue.” That’s lovely, the idea that the sky is made of our memories, and in this poem, they fall into place. A poem to ponder in a hammock, perhaps?

I really like the way Healy’s poems combine simplicity with koan-like wisdom, presented as a small puzzle to unlock. For example, “Twilight” “In the orchard/dark lines/against the grey/the scent of a branch/fresh-cut/sweeter/than the fruit.” I sometimes use a title as a sort of first line or part of the first line, and I think it’s effective here.

Like all of Cinnamon Press’s books, Facsimiles is a nicely designed volume, with an evocative cover and clean layout. It’s well edited — the poems belong together. You’d do well to see the poems on the page because my parsing leaves out the stanzas which are part of the way the poems unfurl.

From Britain to France. A co-worker at Gibson’s suggested I read Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore. I read Lamb a few years ago and really liked it, and had always intended to try another Moore, so I happily borrowed her copy. What an imagination Moore has. He’s a real storyteller.

Sacre Bleu is about a mysterious Colorman whose most tempting pigment, the sacre bleu of Mary’s robes in Renasisance art, seems to have a strange effect on painters. A baker and aspiring painter, Lucien Lessard, who has his own brush with the bewitching blue paint and the Colorman’s companion, Juliette, decides to get learn who this mysterious man is and why his colors seem to make artists go mad. His friend, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, helps him investigate the pigment’s properties and the identity of both the Colorman and Juliette, who seems to share certain qualities with a beautiful laundress Henri once loved, as well the muses and mistresses of a number of their other artist friends.

It’s a wild ride and the breadth of Moore’s research into the time period (the 1890’s), the artists, Paris (and specifically, Montmartre), painting, baking, and the other gorgeous details of the book make the rollicking story that much more interesting. Even without all the research, this would be a fun read. But you’ll learn tidbits about Renoir, Manet, Monet, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Whistler, Pissarro, (but not Degas — Moore tells readers in his author’s note, Degas was too much of a jerk in real life to include in the book).

Plus, Moore is one of the funniest writers around. Lest you think all that time spent researching makes his humor highbrow, keep in mind he has Bleu (Juliette’s real name — I don’t want to give away how she changes identity but its both grim and brilliantly conceived) refer to the Colorman as “Poopstick,” syphilis plays a major part in the Colorman’s evil machinations, and Moore uses the “f” word liberally. If it were a film, it would be R rated. Still Moore is funny and I think the mystery at the heart of the book is quite smartly done. I loved the historical aspects of the book, and I always like a book that incorporates magical realism.

Also set in Paris, in the months before the Iraq War began, is the book I read for the Europa Challenge this month, Alexander Maksik‘s You Deserve Nothing.  This was a much-hyped title when it came out last year, one of the first in Europa’s Tonga imprint. It’s about a popular teacher at an international high school in Paris who has an affair with a student. Maksik tells the story from the point of view of that student, Marie, another student, Gilad, and Will, the teacher.

Maksik is a cinematic writer — a scene where Gilad and Colin, a tougher student, show up at an Iraq War protest and watch it turn ugly and sectarian is particularly vivid, as is a scene where a disturbed homeless man pushes a commuter in front of a train in the Metro. As I read, I could see the streets of Paris, Will’s bleak apartment, the cafes and parks that Gilad frequents. The moody world Will and his adolescent students occupy comes to life in Maksik’s skilled hands.

Will is known to his adoring students as “dude” and “Mr. S.” He’s an archetype of the cool-smart teacher who is passionate, pushing the envelope and disdaining administrative blather because he’s all about setting his students’ hearts and minds on fire. Students say he changes their lives.

Except, the reader is uncomfortable with him almost immediately. Maksik lets us know Will isn’t quite as great as his students think. His best friend at the school, a woman named Mia who is also a good teacher but perhaps not as flamboyantly admired as Will, puts up with his distance, his silence, his inconsiderate behavior. There’s an uncomfortable scene where they are having dinner at her apartment with French friends who mistakenly assume Mia and Will are a couple. Will comes across as emotionally frozen, or indifferent. It’s hard to tell.

As the book proceeds, we learn bits and pieces about Will — he left his wife, apparently with little explanation, after his parents died. He teaches Sartre, Faulkner, Keats, Thoreau, Shakespeare, Camus. He talks a good game to his students about courage, about “the distance between desire and action,” encouraging them to “encounter” themselves, to engage with the world and each other, to argue their points in his class.

Meanwhile, Maksik portrays him as someone who is mostly just going through the motions, who does things to please himself, and who cares about other people only to a point. Will spends his life talking about how to live, but he mostly seems to live in his own little bubble; his interior monologue is quite focused on what he is seeing and experiencing, as if his mind is its own cinematographer, seeking the most beautiful way to capture the scenes he’s seeing. When he considers others it seems to be only slightly.

I didn’t like Will, and Maksik’s portrayal of Paris is pretty grim, as a place hard for outsiders (and almost every character in this book is an outsider in some way) to fit into, beautiful but distant (kind of like Will). I admired Mia, and some of the students at the school; Gilad is everything Will can’t seem to get around to being. His father beats his mother, he’s never felt at home anywhere, but Gilad is transformed by what he’s reading in Will’s class and is able to speak to his parents openly, to be true to his beliefs and his feelings as he comes to understand himself and them. I felt bad for Marie, whose mother is obsessed with her daughter’s appearance and who seems to just want to be loved, but she is one dimensional — we hear only about her affair and her toxic mean-girl friendship with Ariel, another student, and her distant parents, but little else.

Even though the book is uncomfortable and the characters, especially Will, somewhat unsympathetic, I think in the end it’s a “good” book because it forces readers to think about the questions it poses about morality, conviction, courage, charisma, friendship, love.  How should we live? What is our responsibility to ourselves and to each other? What does it mean to take a stand? How do we know what’s worth risking ourselves for) How can we tell what we can and can’t change? How should we judge ourselves and others? What’s heroism and not just hubris? It’s a hard book to describe because I admired it without really enjoying it.

But it did one thing I feel all great writing does: led me to another book. As an English and Spanish major at a liberal arts college, I’d read most of the authors Will teaches in You Deserve Nothing. But I’d never read The Stranger by Albert Camus, so picked that up next. I don’t really think I can write about it well in a few sentences, but I really enjoyed it. Camus’ prose reminded me of Hemingway’s — spare, compact, unadorned, with nothing extravagant or unnecessary. Like multiple adjectives!  The story of Meursault is in some ways reflected in Will’s life. His mother dies, he is alone like Will, and without much thought he engages in an act of passion (in his case murder) that will change his life.

Meursault is not as charismatic as Will, he doesn’t preach an examined life or anything else to anyone, and he seems strangely detached. He agrees to marry his girlfriend (also Marie), to be friends with Raymond (whose tangled life connects him with the eventual murder), to make career decisions, with no emotion. Meursault repeatedly says this or that event or possibility or person mean nothing to him one way or another. But Camus lets us in on the way Meurseault’s crime changes him, how he begins to think in jail, to understand himself. One of the most unsatisfying things about You Deserve Nothing is that we have no idea how Will deals with being caught, fired, and disgraced.

Both books explore existential ideas – that we are human, but that doesn’t mean anything by itself, each of us by living our lives define the essence of human existence for ourselves. If we live true to our own essence rather than according to other people’s expectations and ideas, we will be truly human. But we exercise our free will in a world without any meaning other than our own existence and so our freedom to act and our responsibility to try to understand ourselves is in constant tension with other people’s similar efforts.  It’s been a long time since I studied philosophy and I never got past an intro. course in college, so I may be missing something. But I think that’s the gist.

Anyway, existential heroes in books are hard to understand because we aren’t in their heads so from an observer’s perspective, their actions might seem self-absorbed to the point of sociopathy — murdering someone, sleeping with a student. Trying to understand them is challenging and maybe impossible. So if you like wrestling with ideas or considering philosophical questions, The Stranger will be fun. If you find all of this aggravating and want a more straightforward, black-and-white understanding of a book you read, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea.

Before we leave French thinkers and writers, I read a little book I picked up at Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank, Time for Outrage by French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Stephane Hessel. Hessel also helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has devoted his life to its ideals. This essay, printed as a pamphlet, has been an international best-seller.

Hessel exhorts younger people (pretty much everyone, as he’s in his 90’s) to remember the things his generation fought for during and after the war: freedom, equality, and a fairer, safer, more economically just society. He cautions against indifference and consumerism, and insists that even today’s overwhelming problems can be overcome by engaged activism. He cites Sartre, who was “an older schoolmate” as inspiration, because he taught a libertarian responsibility — “people must commit themselves in terms of their personal, individual human responsibility.” A far more positive take on existentialism than I had before I read Time for Outrage.

Hessel says this lesson stayed with him as he fought fascism and later, opposes totalitarian communist regimes. He grants that climate change, the loss of rights in a world dealing with terrorism and sectarianism, and the Great Recession are daunting but calls on people to support the Occupy movements and other nonviolent protest, to work for change, and to remember the victories of the last several decades: the defeat of Nazi Germany, the rise of democracy in former communist countries, the fall of apartheid, to name three. He ends his pamphlet with a sort of manifesto/blessing/koan “to you who will create the twenty-first century”: “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”

The rest of my reading was not so philosophical, although you could argue that the underlying myths that The Song of Achilles is based on are tales steeped in philosophy. Author Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for this re-telling, which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his companion Patroclus.  Miller says that as she studied The Iliad, she “discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply.” She sets out to give him — Patroclus — his due and to tell the love story she found in her studies.

It’s an atmospheric book; Miller is both a classicist and a dramatist and she makes Ancient Greece real for readers. I’m not sure I agree with a literary prize going to a re-telling (although I know some would argue that there are no original stories but only those that have been with humankind since the beginning), but this is certainly a masterful re-telling. It’s a very sensual read, full of the blood and sweat of a world at war. And it’s a beautiful love story, which brought me to tears. The image conjured by the last two lines of the book — which I don’t want to give away — is as romantic as anything you’ll read anywhere.

Miller explores the character flaws that make Achilles a difficult hero to love; he’s petulant, self-centered, arrogant, all the pitfalls of being anointed a golden boy from birth. Patroclus, who grows up in Achilles shadow, sees himself as weaker, less clever, a lucky follower incapable of inspiring or leading. But Miller shows him growing into a wise, smart, diplomatic man, a healer, a counselor, and a rock not just for Achilles but for many of the Greeks.

Miller writes beautifully about the minor characters in this story as well — Chiron, the centaur who teaches Achilles and Patroclus; Thetis, the willful sea goddess who is Achilles’ mother; Briseis, the Trojan woman whose capture aggravates the feud between  Achilles and Agamemnon and who sees Patroclus for the fine man that he is. Song of Achilles is a very entertaining read, and Miller has written a story anyone, whether they know the Iliad or not, can enjoy.

It’s staff pick time at Regina Library where I am a nocturnal librarian during the academic year. My choice is another prize winner, the 2011 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman. If you’ve never heard of Edith Pearlman, you’re not alone. It’s probably her chosen genre — short fiction — that keeps her from attaining fame, but she is very well respected among her peers. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, she’s won the Pushcart and O. Henry prizes, and her three earlier story collections, Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, and How to Fail won prizes.

Binocular Vision includes twenty-one previously published and thirteen new stories set in many places and featuring characters from different walks of life and various cultures and time periods. While she sometimes surprises readers, Pearlman’s writing is clear and resonant and never flashy, and her plots are straightforward, never hyper-dramatic. This is evocative, detailed, even painterly prose; she creates vivid people and places readers know intimately in just a few pages. She can write from the point of view of men and women, young and old, about a range of emotions and experiences.

Pearlman’s subject matter varies but her themes are classic — friendship and family, identity, courage, aging, facing illness, the search for meaning, the importance of love and conviction. Certain ideas appear in several stories; Pearlman examines the ways children view the adult world in “Inbound,” “Home Schooling,” “Binocular Vision,” “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag,” and “Aunt Telephone,” for instance. A series of stories, “If Love Were All,” “Purim Night,” and “The Coat” feature Sonya, an American who works for a relief agency in London aiding escaping Jews during WWII, then moves to a camp in Europe to help resettle Holocaust victims after the war, and finally returns to New York. A number of stories deal with whether we ever really know each other completely.

One of my favorites, “Jan Term,” is a story told in two letters and a term paper written by a young woman about her work in an antique shop. It’s funny, wise, thoughtful, and moving. Another story I loved is “The Story,” about the parents of a young couple having dinner together; in one scene, Pearlman paints a vivid picture of these very different people brought together by marriage, and the ending is exquisitely poignant. Bookconscious regulars know I am a fan of short fiction, and Pearlman is a master of the form.

For the Mindful Reader column this month, I began with two books helpful to New England staycationers: New Hampshire Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Granite State by photographer Jennifer Smith-Mayo and author Matthew P. Mayo, and New England’s Natural Wonders: An Explorer’s Guide by John S. Burke.

In their introduction, the Mayos head off complaints about possible overlooked icons, but they don’t explain their selection process or the order in which they present the essentials of our state like moose, Motorcycle Week, and Mack’s Apples.  New Hampshire Icons is a tribute to “the rich and amazing historic, geographic, and cultural breadth” of New Hampshire.  Each two page spread includes photos and information in a friendly, conversational tone. One improvement would have been  to list websites in one line instead of squeezed into hard-to-read insets.

New England’s Natural Wonders is organized by type: waterfalls, monadnocks (a kind of mountain as well as the name of one here in New Hampshire), bogs,  etc.  Burke provides an overview of New England’s natural landscapes, and each section also includes a brief introduction. His detailed entries for each wonder offer geologic and human history, notable flora and fauna, directions and visitor information. New England’s Natural Wonders is a coffee table sized book full of photos, not a portable guide.  If you want to know more about the breadth of natural wonders in our region, including twenty-three in New Hampshire, it’s a readable reference.

If you’re heading to the beach, any of the novels I read this month for the column would be a great read. Massachusetts author Cathi Hanauer’s Gone is one you’ll have trouble putting down. Eve Adams and her husband Eric have been married fourteen years. She’s supported Eric’s art career and adapted her own as a nutritionist through a move and motherhood.  He’s in a creative slump, but she’s just published a book.

Eric takes her out to celebrate and afterwards drives the babysitter home. But he doesn’t come back. When she sees he’s using their credit card on gas and hotels, Eve realizes he’s safe but gone. She tries to smooth things over for her kids, keep the family afloat, and deal with her own feelings. She also has to care for her clients, including a group of wealthy older women trying not to get fat, a teen mom, and an obese man who is literally eating himself to death.

Gone’s  hard look at long marriage, parenting adolescents, finding oneself midcareer and perhaps only mid-way to one’s life goals, is all compelling reading. I found Eve’s internal monologue on nutrition somewhat distracting from the rest of the story. That said, Gone’s probing of midlife as a time to reassess and of imperfection as part of life’s messy beauty is worth the occasional rant about processed foods. I admired the way Eve gets on with her life even as everything familiar seems to be changing but would have enjoyed hearing more of Eric’s story; what Hanauer does reveal of him makes for a fuller picture of Eve and their family.

Betsy Woodman is a native of New Hampshire who lived in India as a child. Her debut novel, first in a planned series, will fill you with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of her fictional hill station town, Hamara Nagar, in 1960. Her heroine, Jana Bibi, inherits her grandfather’s home, the Jolly Grant House. She’s widowed with one grown child living in Scotland, but she feels more Indian than Scottish herself. She decides to go and live in the house with her multilingual parrot, Mr. Ganguly, and her housekeeper, Mary. Soon after they’re settled, they learn that much of the town will be underwater if a planned government dam is built.

Along with the local newspaper editor and a shopkeeper from the bazar, Jana Bibi works to put Hamara Nagar on the map so the dam will be relocated. Among the characters who play a role in this funny, endearing story are the students at a nearby multinational boarding school, an introspective Muslim tailor, his singer nephew who dreams of film star fame, an American diplomat who is writing a guidebook, a power-tripping police commissioner, and a variety of people who come to work for Jana Bibi, including a Ghurka bagpiper who scares away monkeys and a messenger boy.

Woodman touches on serious topics like Partition, (when India and Pakistan were split) political corruption, and the challenges of a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society, but she handles all of this with a light touch. The novel is tender but not treacly, the many characters and plot twists fit together pleasantly but not predictably.

If you like Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky, atmospheric novels or you enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes will appeal to you with its international charms, multigenerational characters, philosophical bent, and gentle intrigue. The book includes discussion questions, a glossary of Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic terms, and an interesting essay about Woodman and how she came to write this novel.

Finally, a friend suggested I read Ben H. WintersThe Last Policeman, set in Concord. I hesitated. Why would I want to read a dystopian mystery by an author who parodied my beloved Jane Austen? Because Detective Hank Palace is a delightfuly quirky hero, and Winters’ premise is compelling: a giant asteroid is on track to collide with earth, so why solve a murder?

I really had no idea how much I enjoy a good mystery until recently. I guess because so many mysteries these days veer into thriller/crime dramas with shocking plots and gory details, and I’m not a fan of reading (or watching) violent or creepy stuff. My grandmother always told me that mysteries were the best stress busters, and the best antidote to the news. It’s true they are easy to get lost in.  A good one will entertain and challenge you, but not in a my-brain-hurts-and-my-soul-will-soon-too  way (like novels with existential heroes!).

I enjoyed following Palace as he cracked his case. He’s a lovable loser sort of a hero, a guy who hasn’t gotten around to decorating his apartment, pines for an old girlfriend (who is smart and nice, not just beautiful), eats the same thing at a neighborhood greasy spoon all the time.  And I loved the detailed references to Concord; Winters did his homework.  He’s a witty writer, and the minor characters in The Last Policeman are intriguing. A woman key to Palace’s investigation works in insurance but is trying to write the perfect villanelle before the world ends. Nico, Palace’s younger sister, seems like a mess but Winters leaves readers wondering if she’s smarter and craftier than we realized. I’m looking forward to the next Hank Palace book.

Up next? I have 4 or 5 books to read for the August Mindful Reader, I really want to get to Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker, and I may break down and get myself Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam, which I swore I wasn’t buying until I finish my to-reads but would be part of my Europa Challenge. I heard another great review of it on Fresh Air and also listened to a clip of the wise Nora Ephron in an interview talking about how we should eat our last meal now rather than waiting, because you never know. Same with books.

I’m a little over halfway through The Library Book, which I am loving. I want to read so many other things, and I am not making much progress on my goal of setting aside an afternoon a week to get lost in a book. But having a full, busy life isn’t a bad thing, and Teen the Elder is home for a few precious weeks before he goes off to college, so I am going to enjoy every day and read when I can. I hope you do, too!

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If any of you read my new blog The Nocturnal Librarian you know October saw the bookconscious household hosting the Computer Scientist’s aunt and uncle, who are English. We tried to give them a real taste of New England, with a day in Boston, a drive to Mt. Kearsarge (Rollins State Park in Warner offers quite a vista of the surrounding hills, lakes and towns), a trip to Nubble light house at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, and shorter jaunts around our town. New England really is beautiful in every season, fall being perhaps the most spectacular.

It’s also touts itself as the birthplace of America — the country, but also the idea, of freedom from tyrrany. As we visited Boston I was reading Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum. Seeing the Freedom Trail sites with British relatives got me thinking about the way history changes entirely depending on the lens through which you view it. Blum considers that idea in her novel.

Those Who Save Us is the story of a German American history professor, Trudy, and her mother, Anna. At the beginning of the book, Trudy’s father has died; you immediately sense her strained relationship with Anna, and as the book unfolds you learn why Anna is so taciturn.  Blum alternates between Anna’s story and Trudy’s efforts to understand German war experiences generally, and her mother in particular.

Anna’s wartime life included a forbidden love affair with a Jewish doctor, his imprisonment around the time of her pregnancy, and work in a bakery and with the German resistance. After the baker is killed on a mission, the Obersturmfuhrer from Buchenwald begins visiting Anna, making her his mistress. Trudy wonders how Germans could live with what the Nazis were doing, and is haunted by fleeting memories of a Nazi visiting her mother. Anna stays utterly silent about with what she did in order to stay alive and feed Anna, about Anna’s real father, and all she lost during the war.  As the novel progresses, Blum deftly illustrates how history is not only a meta-narrative but millions of personal stories, each hinging on individual circumstances. I enjoyed it very much.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage, looks at a different historical time and place: a derelict neighborhood in 19060’s Boston. The title character’s views on the bookstore he lives above, the brilliant but troubled writer he befriends, and the deteriorating neighborhood about to be bulldozed in the name of stamping out urban blight is unique because Firmin is a rat.  Savage manages to make this lowly creature a truly empathetic character, one who ponders human nature, cruelty, beauty, and the meaning of a well lived life. Oh, and he can read, and educates himself  by reading his way through the shop, as well as observing people.

It’s a tragicomedy about literature, friendship, and how to live, and if you’re in doubt you should just read it and see for yourself. Yes, Firmin is a rat, but he’s also one of the most imaginative, self-aware, thoughtful characters I’ve come across in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and am grateful to Poets & Writers magazine’s profile of Savage in the September issue, where I learned about his work. I hope to track down his other books, all published by Coffee House Press.

A co-worker at Regina Library talks about what he’s reading with me, and when I was explaining I like books that entertain while also probing Big Ideas he asked if I’d ever read The Prophet byKhalil Gibran.  I hadn’t, so he lent me his copy.  Given its wild popularity, I figured I should see for myself why people seem to love it or hate it.

I fell somewhere in the middle. I admire the idea: it’s a book of philosophical prose poems, told from the point of view of a man who is leaving a place of exile to return to his homeland. He’s clearly beloved by people in his adopted country, and they seek his wisdom before he departs. So from a literary point of view, combining a story with philosophy told in poetic language and a creative form is interesting. Some of the book is quite beautiful.

But I read a biographical piece on Gibran in the New Yorker that made me question whether he was a genius as so many believe or an egomaniac.  So it was hard to take the book at face value after that. Read as interesting literature, rather than spiritual wisdom, I liked The Prophet; that said, there are worse things than to try to live by principles gleaned from a book, no matter the ego of the author.

Another author who interfered with my enjoyment of his book was Florent Chauvouet. His book, Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhood is visually amazing. His hand-drawn maps and sketches of people and places around Tokyo are whimsical and engaging. But readers should note it’s a book by a person who came to Japan for six months and clearly took issue with some aspects of Japanese life. Which is his prerogative — and maybe I would have some of the same feelings if I were to live there — but not what I want to read. Maybe I’m just being crank. The Computer Scientist loved this book, and he’s actually been to Japan a few times.

I visited two other countries via books in October: France and Iran.  Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a fascination with Iran; it’s a place with a rich culture and history, but its people have really lost out in the leadership lottery.  One regime after another has made modern Iran hell for at least some of the people, all of the time. Politics aside, it’s a shame, because there is so much to love about Persian literature, art, and food. I’ve learned to love Iranian culture mostly through memoirs.

Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart In an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan is a memoir deeply interested in Iran’s food. Bijan is a chef who knew growing up that cooking was her passion. Her parents, a doctor and a nurse who were both larger than life characters who worked tirelessly to help their patients, had to flee Iran at the time of the Revolution.  In America, Bijan’s father was daunted by the prospect of becoming a doctor all over again in his 60’s and eventually returned to Iran to re-open his hospital. Her mother worked as a nurse in California and supported Bijan’s dream of training in France to become a chef.

The family’s stories are fascinating, and Bijan tells them well, while also examining her own path in light of her family history. Like other good memoirs, Maman’s Homesick Pie is much more than a family narrative. Bijan explores cultural identity, the role of women in her two countries, marriage, and finding one’s true calling in life.

The book did make me hungry; Bijan includes recipes, which I haven’t tried.  She cooked for Bono and his wife when they visited her San Francisco with their baby many years ago. How cool is that?  Her descriptions of French restaurant life are fascinating as well; her own story is sort of a  memoir within a memoir.

Speaking of France, I revisited the charming apartment house brought to life by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog in her second novel, Gourmet Rhapsody.  This book quietly grew on me.  If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you may recall one of the residents of the Parisian building  is a restaurant critic, an influential but arrogant man named Pierre Athens.  As Gourmet Rhapsody opens, Monsieur Athens is dying, and he is maddened by the faint remembrance of a flavor he can’t quite identify.

Barbery cleverly tells the man’s life story through an interweaving of his own memories and the thoughts of his family, friends, and neighbors. Even a statue in his study weighs in, along with his favorite cat. Each chapter brings readers closer to discovering what Athens is trying to recall, of understanding his ego and the path of emotional destruction he has left in the wake of his hedonistic life. The shifting points of view are delightful; if the whole book were told in his voice, you’d want to toss it aside in in disgust.

I will say Barbery gives the man a way with words. Take for example this passage, in which he describes tasting sushi for the first time: “Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.”  Or later, “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial grace.”

In other words, he tells the truth (or his perception of it) and tells it slant. Towards the end, Athens declares, “The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why.” I think that would make a marvelous philosophy dissertation topic. If I ever go back to school, I’m on it.

Another novel that takes a hard look at “knowing why” is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, the author of Mudbound.  This twist on The Scarlet Letter is set in a dystopian future America where conservative religious leaders have taken power in the wake of terror attacks and a rampant STD scourge that has left many women barren. Our heroine, Hannah, is convicted of having an abortion, refuses to name the man who got her pregnant (her mega-church pastor), and is sentenced to being a “red” — she is “chromed” or genetically altered to turn her skin red, which marks her as a murderer.

The book reads like a thriller, in which Hannah and a friend she meets in prison are rescued from a cultish religious vigilante group by another cultish group who run a sort of Underground Railroad to spirit women like them to Canada. Jordan makes it more emotionally complicated than straight up good versus evil though, as Hannah grows out of her sheltered upbringing into a thinking, questioning adult.

The people Hannah meets do occasionally veer into stock characters: her rescuers speak French, which it seems to me is a little too caricatured of sneering at American politics; a spoiled wealthy southern white man in a grand old house is a turncoat; an Episcopal priest representative of the “Via Media” offers Hannah shelter in a storm.

This is a small quibble though, and may be my own perspective. Overall, I couldn’t put down When She Woke. Jordan addresses important questions of personal conduct and public approbation, and the danger of dominant culture or even the government in expressing public sentiment. She also champions critical thinking and individual actions, and examines how morality and belief can morph into extremism, especially when people are scared, uneducated, or both. In fact, one of the important themes of When She Woke is that mature belief grows as much from questions as from accepted truths.

Collecting personal statements of belief for public reading, listening, and discussion, is the fascinating work of This I Believe.org.  In October I read This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ahead of the What Do you Believe? event at Regina Library next week.  First year students at Rivier read this book as part of their entry into college life, and the college Writing and Resource Center is co-sponsoring the event. I love the idea of a community read that has a writing component.

This I Believe II, like all of the organization’s books,  is a collection of essays from all kinds of people — young, old, men, women, successful, struggling, famous, unknown — about their personal philosophies.  The essays examine belief  in everything from the Golden Rule to baking.  I tried reading some of the essays aloud, but the Computer Scientist pointed out they are much better heard in the voices of the people who wrote them. You can listen or read on the website, or subscribe to the podcast.

Either way, it’s heartening to know that so many people have spent time considering their deeply held beliefs and writing them down, and thousands have shared those personal manifestos. Some of the beliefs are easy to understand, others are not. Some contradict each other.  I made a list of favorites from this volume; I hope to re-read them and think about why those ideas resonated with me. Maybe I’ll write my own essay some day. It would probably start with “I believe in reading.”

Or maybe, “I believe in poetry.” I attended a talk on some themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which came after a screening of Answer This! and a Q&A with Professor Ralph Williams (who acted in the film) and director Christopher Farah.  Prof. Williams told the audience that beauty and the ravages of time were much on the minds of Elizabethans, but that even as we live longer today, beauty can serve the same purposes: to perpetuate love, and to help us deal evil. Reading poetry is one of the best ways I know of unplugging from the world’s bad news; some of my favorite poets address what’s evil or unpleasant head on.

Maxine Kumin’s poems on torture, for example. Or, in her book The Kingdom of Ordinary TimeMarie Howe‘s poems that face inequality (“The Star Market,” “What We Would Give Up,” domestic violence (“Non-Violence” and “The Tree Fort”) and terrorism (“Non-violence 2”). She writes with searing beauty, she writes of horrible things; these are not mutually exclusive.  I heard Howe on Fresh Air, where she addressed writing about grief and loss, and checked for her work at the library that night.

Howe’s poems on faith are some of my favorites. “Easter” imagines Jesus re-entering his own broken body: “And the whole body was too small. Imagine/ the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill./ He came into it two ways:/ From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants./ And from the center — suddenly all at once.”  Wow. Have you ever even tried to imagine this? I hadn’t.

“Prayer” may be the simplest, most direct explanation of the human tendency to avoid opening ourselves to the divine and  mysterious I’ve read in any form. “The mystics say you are as close as my own breath/ Why do I flee from you?/ My days and nights pour through me like complaints/and become a story I forgot to tell.”

And “Annunciation,” from a sequence called “Poems From the Life of Mary” describes motherhood’s jolting, almost unbearable essence: “a tilting within myself;” Mary is “only able to endure it by being no one and so/ specifically myself I thought I’d die/from being loved like that.”

A poetry professor at Rivier had the library staff pull a variety of poetry books to keep handy on a cart for students. I had just finished Howe’s book and heard Prof. Williams discuss sonnets and I was hungry for more poetry. So I browsed the cart.

Also, it was the Thursday before Halloween (Thursdays already being slow in the library, due to something called Thirsty Thursday which, as the mother of future college students, I don’t want to think about.) I read a fantastic book, Linda Pastan‘s Traveling Light, in one sitting. I love this book, I cannot believe I’ve made it to this point in my life without reading Linda Pastan, I want to go back and read every single poems she’s ever written.

Ever have that kind of reaction to an author? I scribbled notes as I read, marking both sides of a sheet of scrap paper at the reference desk. Lines I loved.  Poems that struck me.

Such as: “In the end we are no more than our own stories:/ mine a few brief passages in the Book,/no further trace of plot or dialogue” from a poem called “Eve on Her Deathbed.” The poem goes on to trace Eve’s remembrances.

“Lilacs,” blew me away in part because a poem I was working on last week includes lilacs, as does another poem of mine, “Remembering Lilacs.” Pastan writes more beautifully what I know to be true of these flowers: “their leaves as heart-shaped/as memory itself.”

Pastan looks to the color of spring with both hope and bittersweet acceptance of time and its ravages of beauty in “April.”   “A whole new freshman class/ of leaves has arrived/ on the dark twisted branches/ we call our woods, turning/ green now — color of/ anticipation. In my 76th year,/ I know what time and weather/ will do to every leaf.”

She takes a patiently humorous view of age in “Q & A” — a student in the poem asks “Did you write/your Emily Dickinson poem/because you like her work,/ or did you know her personally?” and Pastan writes of the audience’s laughter, the girl’s embarrassment, and her own response: “Surprise, like love, can catch/ our better selves unawares./ ‘I’ve visited her house,’ I said./ ‘I may have met her in my dreams.'”

I could go on and on — my notes include admiration for Pastan’s bold use of rhyme in “Bronze Bells of Autumn” and “Ash.”  For the questions she opens up in “In the Har-Poen Tea Garden,” and “The Flood, 2005.” For the gorgeous “In the Forest,” which tells why poetry heals a broken world, because it gives us words to “Praise what is left.” My advice? Find this book and read it.

Tonight I will no doubt stay up too late, because I’m reading one of those novels I wish I could actually be in, even though it’s full of war and hardship: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. I’ve written about Hoffman’s ability to create characters I’d like to know before: her book The Red Garden was one of my favorite reads last year.

Doverkeepers is a page-turning saga. It’s the story of several women who have made their ways to Masada around 71 C.E., when the Romans have destroyed the Temple and Jews have fled Jerusalem. Hoffman tells each woman’s story, weaving their lives together so that the reader feels a part of the circle. As in many of her other books, there is a magical aspect to the story, but this is also a historical novel and there is an incredible amount of rich sensory detail that makes the time and place come alive.

I received this book as a review copy before I left the bookstore, and the word was that this is Hoffman’s “big book.”  It certainly goes to the heart of many ideas present in other books of hers that I’ve read, with a depth and grace that surpasses her earlier work. That said, I haven’t read all of her books.   Identity, family, faith, transformation, love — this book explores Big Ideas even as Hoffman tells stories that entrance not only for their imaginative power, but the sense of  Truth in the voices of these women.

If I had to boil down what The Dovekeepers is about, I’d say it’s the story of being a woman. Together the protagonists represent a composite of all the roles women have filled over the centuries and in many ways still do, even in a world far different than that of first century Judea. Well, hang on; terrorism, violence, inequality, poverty, religious intolerance, culture wars, famine, drought and flooding, environmental degradation, invasions, world powers dominating smaller nations with their military and economic might, gender stereotyping, fear for the future. Maybe things aren’t so different in some ways.

Speaking of things that are the same: it’s November, so I am NaNoWriMo-ing. I’ve done this before (four times, in fact) but took last year off. I wasn’t going to try to squeeze writing 50,000 words in a month into my life this year either, but two things changed my mind. First, I wrote about NaNoWriMo over at my other blog and remembered all the reasons it’s brilliant. Second, I read this article on simplifying.  I cut some RSS feeds from my Google Reader, and decided there were other ways I could trim excess from my schedule.

Plus, I had some time yesterday evening, between a staff meeting and my reference desk shift, to write. So I dove in and came up for air 5,057 words later. I’m off and writing. It’s exhilarating to be working on a big messy project, when I usually work in the tight constraints of line breaks and poetic forms.

The  Computer Scientist started reading a large messy book recently, or so it appears to an outside observer: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. He’d been on a reading sabbatical, with coaching and other things demanding more of his time. Stay tuned. He did tell me that the Atlantic article on the NCAA by Taylor Branch was one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing he’d read in a long time.

Teen the Younger says the best thing she read in October was the rest of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which she pronounced  “intense.”  She told me that the novel went along at a steady pace and right near the end, picked up and got a lot more exciting.  She’s currently reading volume one of The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

What’s next for me?  Hooksett Library book group is reading Loving Frank, and I have a collection of short stories about libraries, In the Stacks, which I’d like to read soon.  And, I’m reading Migrations, a poetry collection by Anne Cluysenaar published by Cinnamon Press. Happy reading!

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Many of the books I read this month are about making a life.  As Teen the Elder draws nearer to setting off on his own adventures, I’ve been thinking about the life we’ve made as a family.   It may seem strange to track that through books, but we recently went down to Ikea to get the last bookcase we needed to fill out the wall in our living room and finally get the piles of books up off the floor.

This project  required reorganizing all our books– which are shelved for usability rather than in a particular order, in loose subject grouping and by size and distance from the floor for those of us who are height challenged.  I had a good time looking back at the passions the kids have pursued over the years, from spies to Ancient Egypt to birds to maps to the many books of history, science, and art projects we worked on together.  And I enjoyed re-shelving many favorite books I read aloud. For our family, making a good life together has meant learning together, sharing our interests, exploring new ones. Books have been an important piece of that life, and my newly arranged shelves serve as a kind of memory album.

So with all of this on my mind, perhaps it’s no coincidence that as I read this month, I was considering the way we humans make our way in the world.  Most of us are seeking to live together as best we can, making our lives meaningful in some way, often through our connections with one another. Some people are of course more deliberate about this than others, to the point of feeling they know what’s best for others as well as themselves.

In her new book Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell examines some very determined folks who set out to make Hawaii part of America.  Since we lived there for three years (both the Computer Scientist and Teen the Elder were born in Hawaii while their fathers were stationed there with the Navy & Marine Corps, respectively), I also found myself reminiscing about our time there but also reflecting on the tensions that still exist between native Hawaiians and “haoles.”

Vowell traces the many forces that led to the annexation of the islands, from the first New England missionaries, who were sure that a good life meant converting Hawaiians to Christianity and de-heathenizing their culture, to the wealthy sugar plantation owners and politicians who weren’t content with cultural “improvements” and wanted Hawaii to be American mainly so they could avoid tariffs and gain a good spot to park Navy ships.   I really enjoyed her smart but cheeky tone, and found the history fascinating. Vowell’s observation that the missionaries and the Hawaiian royals were actually both “traditionalists” at odds over the best way for Hawaiians to live is particularly interesting and insightful.

I read Vowell’s book because she came to Concord on her book tour.  Another author who stopped by Gibson’s in March is Caitlin Shetterly, for her book Made for You and Me. Shetterly’s book is a memoir about her experience moving to LA with her husband  Dan and their pets, discovering she was pregnant, then slowly watching her husband’s freelance photography work dry up as the recession hit, and ultimately deciding to move back home with her mother in Maine.  Shetterly writes with humor and great affection, sharing the best and worst of their experiences without shying away from occasionally poking fun at herself.

Caitlin told fans at the store that she thinks of Made for You and Me as a love story as well as a story about what happens to a man who believes in the American Dream when it falls apart. It’s also a book about making a new American dream, one in which building community, sharing lives with family and friends, and living simply become hallmarks of success, rather than making it “big.”  Not that financial success is bad — we’d all like to be secure and provide for our families, and have some luxuries.

Caitlin and Dan became part of a new community virtually; friends and eventually strangers all over the country responded when she began blogging about their experiences and recording a “recession diary” for NPR.  They also found to their surprise that coming home with unrealized dreams led to many unexpected joys.  My favorite parts of the book — the moments where I felt like I was part of their tribe, too — are the tender moments they share with their newborn or their pets. In a world where I’m constantly feeling the tug between wanting to be mindful, wanting to spend more time just being with my family and friends, and needing to meet many obligations, Made for You and Me was a nice break and a reminder than I should listen to the mindful voice.

You could not ask for a better book about living well by caring for one another than Desmond Tutu’s  Made for Goodness, which he wrote with his daughter, Mpho. This a book to re-read and study.  Part memoir, part theology, part manual for living intentionally, this is a brilliant little book.  Bishop Tutu explains why, after all of the hardship, misery, and horror he has seen and experienced, he believes that we humans are indeed “made for goodness.”  In simple but lovely language, he explains how we can release guilt, worry, and fear of not living up to our potential so that we can forgive, live compassionately, and make lives filled with meaningful, loving relationships with our fellow human beings.

If this sounds very “airy fairy,” it’s not. Tutu has seen the worst in people, and he’s also seen what reconciliation can do. His points are gentle, but rooted in strong faith and deep wisdom. He’s also very much a man living in the world and not in an ivory tower — when he talks about people being tough on their kids, or about marriage, or dealing with difficult situations at work, or being impatient with the world, he offers examples from his own life, and his daughter’s.  I definitely plan to get this book and take time reflecting more carefully on what it means to be good and how to purposefully seek goodness.

Before I turn to fiction and poetry, I read one more memoir this month, Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo.  This is another fascinating book set in the Middle East (bookconscious regulars know I’ve worked my way through books about Iran, Israel, & Syria in the last year or so), this time in Lebanon and Iraq, where Ciezadlo and her husband, Mohammed, are journalists.  She begins in New York, where she and Mohammed meet, and traces their moves to Beirut and Baghdad, their work there, and the way she tries to find community in food, friends and family. The descriptions of food will make you hungry, but Ciezadlo provides recipes in the back of the book.

From the first time she and Mohammed go out, they bond over food, even though they have somewhat different tastes. Later, when she meets his family, she gets to know siblings and friends in Beirut as they go out to eat, and connects with her mother-in-law by asking her to teach her to prepare Lebanese home-cooking. In hotels rooms, Ciezadlo rigs kitchens out of hotplates & mini fridges and shops in neighborhood markets, trying to create a normal life in an otherwise chaotic situation.

Both as memoir — examining her own life and dreams and her struggle to make a home in the middle of war zones — and as a journalist’s examination of  war, Day of Honey is enthralling.  Ciezadlo’s observations about the Iraq war, sectarian violence there, and the people she meets in Iraq, are unlike anything I’ve read about the war; both more personal and more universal. Her accounts of the end of a relatively peaceful time in Lebanon brought on by the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the Cedar Revolution, and the Hezbollah-Israel war are also incredible — through her eyes and the eyes of her Lebanese friend and family we see sectarianism,  the chaos of war, and the senseless destruction of homes and lives.  It’s depressing to see so clearly what human beings wreak upon one another.

But there is also much hope, much beauty, and much humor in Day of Honey.  You get the sense that even in horrible times, people are resilient and more look out for each other than not. I felt outraged that Hezbollah influences people with handouts and disaster relief, but heartened that they don’t actually do it all that well, and that many ordinary Lebanese reject their ideas when they can speak freely.  As my grandmother would say, people just want to live, raise their families, make a life. We often discussed the Middle East together, and agreed that the partisan old men need to go before real peace can be made there.

Anyway, Day of Honey is a wonderful book.  I enjoyed the excellent writing as well as the insightful reflection on places of conflict, what home means and how we can make ourselves a home in even the most challenging situations. I also admired the way Mohammed’s family embraced their new American member and laughed out loud at some of the ways they didn’t see eye to eye. Ciezadlo is gracious though, and writes quite tenderly of her extended family.

Which brings me to a novel of family, friendship, and home — Minding Ben.  Author Victoria Brown was at WI6 in Washington, where I met her.  The novel is about a teenager from Trinidad who leaves home alone to move to New York and make a new life. From the beginning, when her cousin doesn’t show up at the airport, her American Dream is nothing like she’d expected. Another example of the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: this book, like Made for You and Me, addresses the idea of chasing the American Dream and shaping it to fit a new reality.

Grace wants to further her education, work, and make something of herself. What she finds is that without papers she can’t make much progress, and that jobs are hard to come by. Working as a nanny for a stereotypical neurotic New York power couple, trying to help her cousin Sylvia get her apartment re-painted when the youngest child, who can’t speak, test positive for lead poisoning, navigating the immigrant social scene with her best friend, Grace lives up to her name.  You’ll love her for it.

Readers can’t help but admire Grace as she helps everyone in her life who needs it, puts up with her obnoxious employers, and does her best to keep in touch with her mother and sister in Trinidad, where her father is ill and getting worse. This is a contemporary urban novel of manners, with Grace the plucky heroine who represents all that is right in the world. As in a Dickens novel, or Austen, you can tell which people are Good and which are not. But Brown makes it more complex — a few characters are just conflicted or overwhelmed, like real people.

Brown touches on the disparity in health care and living standards between the rich and the poor, the unfortunate fact that illegal immigration provides domestic help for wealthy Americans, the differences between America’s image abroad as a place of plenty and the reality immigrants find when they arrive. Her insights into the pecking order among a building’s nannies and the strange social climbing of Grace’s employer are witty and entertaining. But the novel is best at the points where we see Grace becoming who she wanted to be — a self-reliant, strong, capable young woman who finally gets a break towards the end of the book. I’ll leave it at that for those who want to read it.

From a novel of manners to a novel of interiors — Emily Alone, by Stewart O’Nan.  This is a follow up to Wish You Were Here; O’Nan told the New York Time’s The New Old Age blog he had “unfinished business” with the “irrepressible” Emily Maxwell. Most of Emily Alone takes place in Emily’s house in Pittsburgh. She’s a widow, and the last of her group of friends still living in her neighborhood.  As the book progresses, she attends funerals for a couple of her contemporaries. The person she talks to and sees most often is her sister-in-law Arlene, with whom she’s always had a difficult relationship.

As I read, I was so impressed with the depth of this book; O’Nan plumbs every detail of Emily’s day to day life — the way she makes lists and notes in her calendar to make sure she doesn’t forget anything, the way she returns to driving after Arlene is hospitalized, her thought process as she buys a new car, as she prepares for a Christmas visit with her daughter and grandchildren. Everything from her breakfast buffet coupons to her thoughts on music, her reflections on her own parents, and the way she sees her changing neighborhood is lovingly crafted on the page for readers to absorb. Even her thoughts on her dog and Arlene’s fish, or the weather’s impact on her moods — these small details add up to portrait of Emily that you can turn in your mind like a prism, enjoying each glint of color and light.

And this is a book to absorb. Lately I’ve  been wishing I had more time to savor books, instead of having so many to read and limited time.  Emily Alone would be the perfect book to read in small bites, with a cup of tea, stopping to gaze out at my own neighborhood, and to ponder what my life might be like when I’m in my late 70’s.

It’s a book to muse on. Why do we sometimes have challenging relationships even with those we’re closely related to (especially by marriage)? Why do people who grew up in the same household turn out to be such different adults? Why does our culture expect us to leave our kids alone when they’re adults, when so many other cultures live multi-generationally and put the advice of elders ahead of other considerations?

Listening to Stewart O’Nan when he visited Gibson’s was fascinating. I’ve mentioned before how much author readings have added to my reading life; Caitlin Shetterly posed the same question during her reading, about why Americans don’t have intergenerational households. Sarah Vowell shared many insights, including what she admires about missionaries (in Hawaii, they created a written version of Hawaiian and wrote a number of books which are still used today to keep that language alive). Stewart shared a little about how he researches books.

Unlike people who say “write what you know,” Stewart writes what he wants to find out about. He told us he asked older people at library readings what they thought about their neighborhoods changing. He asked them about gardening; why they did it, what they enjoyed, how they thought about it in the winter. You can see all of this in Emily Alone — all of Emily’s thoughts, her happiness digging in the flower beds, the way her summer is organized around her garden, her sadness looking back at neighborhood cookouts and parties. Her minor irritations with slowing down in old age.

The result is a book that feels like a life. Stewart has made Emily so thoroughly real, so recognizable, that I feel sure I’ve known her (twice) in the real world. And a couple of weeks after I’ve finished the book, I am still thinking about her.  I plan to go back and read Wish You Were Here soon, and I think Emily Alone would make a really good community-wide read.

Interestingly, Stewart mentioned two other books I read recently: The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht (which I wrote about here last month), and Touch by Alexi Zentner.  It turns out these books, or their kernels at least, came out of the same workshop. I just finished Touch and I can see how it shares certain sensibilities with The Tiger’s Wife — both are stories told by an adult grandchild, incorporating stories the grandparent told, and both novels are tinged with myth and magic. Both novelists look at death and what we tell ourselves about those who’ve died. And both are beautifully told, beautifully written stories. But Touch has much to recommend it on its own.

Touch is a quiet book.  Almost all of the action happens in the small village of Sawgamet in Western Canada, where the main character, Stephen, has come home to serve as pastor of the Anglican church.   His mother is dying, and he sits in the study of the home she shared with him and his step-father, remembering events from his boyhood, and earlier stories told by his father and grandfather about the family before he was born.

The soft tone of the novel, like the snow which frequently falls in Sawgamet, masks the depth of the tragedies which people in this little village have experienced. Fires, logging accidents, deadly blizzards, and the strange death of Stephen’s grandfather on the night he believes he’s found his long dead wife alive in the woods are background for the central sorrow of Stephen’s life. When he was a boy, his sister fell through the river ice while skating and died, along with his father, who was trying to save her.

But all of this, while key to the book, is not the point of Touch. The novel is about love and loss and the mystery of death, and it’s about history carrying into the present through generations, but it’s also about making our lives whole. Those who can do so in Sawgamet manage it by facing the difficult stories, picking themselves up, and creating new stories of their own in their families, homes, and work. Those who, like Stephen’s grandfather, have a foothold somewhat too strong in the magical, awful stories of the past never manage to make their lives whole in the present.

I think this is true even for those of us who don’t live in a place with a strong sense of fable. Our cultural and familial stories can something have such a strong grasp on us that we fail to thrive in our present lives, caught by the invisible hands of those who suffered before us.  And yet, often in the same family, there’s someone (or several people) who manages to make it. It’s a curious conundrum. And it happens, even in families with no tragic past. Sometimes people are caught up in their families’ past successes just as badly.

My own musings aside, I found Touch just beautiful, and Stephen is one of my new favorite characters in literature. The strength he exudes just quietly sitting at his desk, reflecting on not just the past but on his daughters and his wife, his stepfather and mother, is inspiring. The generous amount of empathy with which he tells readers of his family’s past horrors is admirable. He’s a compassionate, intelligent, and impartial narrator.

Which is also how I hear the voice of poet David Budbill. I read Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse this month. I love the way these poems tell readers that the poet is torn between wishing to live a reclusive literary life close to the land and wanting to be a rock star poet, speaking to packed halls and selling lots of books. Because who wouldn’t like to have both?

And in some ways, Budbill does. No poet really packs halls these days, or sells as many books as a popular novelist, but Budbill has become well known for his poetry, novel, children’s book, essays, commentary, and plays. His poems are funny, wise, and natural; nothing you can’t understand on the first reading, plenty to learn from each subsequent reading.

Many of the poems in Moment to Moment describe Budbill’s mountain home in Vermont and the birds and animals who live there. Another favorite topic is Chinese art and poetry.  One of my favorites, ” On the Way to Buddhahood,” which I have had hanging in my kitchen for a couple of years, is about the poet’s spiritual path:  “Ever plainer. Ever simpler./Ever more ordinary./My goal is to become a simpleton./And from what everybody tells me/I am making real progress.”

Another poem I like is a curmudgeonly look at contemporary America’s obsession with self-help gurus, “Trying To Be Who I Already Am.”  He quotes a 4th century Chinese nature poet, “My nature comes of it itself. It isn’t something/you can force into line” and then he continues, ” So, please, leave me alone./I don’t want your advice./I’m just trying to be/who I already am.”

Some of the poems are koan-like in their double edged simplicity/complexity. For example, “You False Masters of Serenity,” which to me sums up the enormous struggle I have with mindfulness in the modern world: “Damn all you/false masters of serenity,/gurus of happy./Struggle/is what it means/ to be alive and free.”

I’ve read that one over and over, and rolling it around my brain. In light of the revolutions taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, the sectarian struggles in many other places, the nuclear and post-tsunami/earthquake recovery in Japan, the ongoing problems in Haiti, and even the protests in the U.S. over budgets and bargaining rights, Budbill seems to have boiled the essence of humanity into a short simple, somewhat humorous poem.  Struggle is what it means to be alive and free. Wow.

There are many more that I love in this collection, and I look forward to Budbill’s forthcoming book, Happy Life. Another poetry book I read this month is Working In Flour, by New Hampshire poet Jeff Friedman. I took a wonderful workshop with Jeff at NH Writers’ Project’s Writer’s Day a couple of years ago, and read Taking Down the Angel.

Many of the poems I liked best in that book are midraschic.  In Working In Flour, “Ladder,” in Jacob’s voice, is a beautiful and disturbing re-imagining Jacob’s dream of the ladder descending from heaven. “Ararat” is the only literature I’ve ever seen that deal with post-flood realities that seem eerily like the aftermath of a tsunami: “The dove never came back./Everywhere we looked there were dead bodies,/piles of wood, shards of glass,/ shreds of fabric, fragments of roofs,/jewelry glinting in sand.” And “The Binding,” tells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice from Isaac’s perspective.

Other poems I enjoyed in Working In Flour are the title poem, about an inept would-be bakery worker, who screws everything up so much on his first day that he’s told on the second, “I liked you better as a customer.”  “Luna Moth,” in which, “. . . the luna moth scudded through our bedroom, reading/my horoscope on the dust of the blinds.”  And “The War On Fat, Frontenac Plaza,” which made me laugh.

I finally finished The Making of  a Sonnet this month, the excellent anthology from Norton, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. It took a couple of years, but I really enjoyed this comprehensive look at the sonnet through the ages, around the world, and in variations. It would be fruitless to try recall all the poems I especially liked over such a long time, but I came across one recently as I came near the end of the book which was new to me, “History,” by another New Hampshire poet, Charles Simic.

As for the rest of the family, Teen the Younger is reading vampire books — no, not Twilight, but The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer. She says she likes them because the typical school drama stuff isn’t prominent, but instead there’s a real story. She’s also reading all kinds of Manga. I realized recently that she’s read nearly 50 volumes of Naruto alone.

After we watched Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show, she  picked up Unfamiliar Fishes and vanished into her room with it. And because her Grandpa is reading Bill Bryson, Teen the Younger is reliving happy childhood memories re-reading I’m A Stranger Here Myself, which for years was a road trip staple in our house. I’d read it aloud, or, when the kids and I would make our epic summer drives from south Georgia to New Hampshire, we’d listen to the audio book.

As I’ve mentioned before, Mr. Bryson is a bookconscious household hero. My kids are convinced there’s no wittier man on earth, and our presence in New Hampshire is at least partly due to my reading I’m A Stranger Here Myself around the time the Computer Scientist and I were circling potential place to live on a U.S. map. And now my dad is reading the entire Bryson oeuvre as well.

Teen the Elder read Twelfth Night last month and said it’s his favorite of the three Shakespeare plays he’s read and others he’s seen. He liked the complexity of the play with its many sub-plots.  He’s thoroughly wrapped up in music these days, creating his own tunes in FL Studio (and now on Garage Band on our new hand-me-down IPad) and listening to all kinds of things, and reported that other than the play, everything else he read in March was “pretty boring.” Sigh.

The Computer Scientist started The Tiger’s Wife and and re-read The Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris. He says, “I’ve always enjoy the Hannibal Lecter line of stories and this one is no exception. Gory details and gritty story open a window to psychopaths that Harris describes so well. If you at all found Silence of the Lambs interesting, I definitely recommend you read all the stories.”

He also read a book I picked up for both of us at WI6, whose author, I am excited to say, is coming to Gibson’s June 2:  It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace, by Rye Barcott. As a former Marine himself, the Computer Scientist has this to say about Rye and his work:

“Rye Barcott is an amazing human with unbelievable energy and drive. While only a college student on the path to service as a Marine Officer, Rye envisions and launches a grass-roots non-profit in one of the most challenging locations in all of Africa: the Kibera slums in Kenya. He tells his story of navigating the complexities of governmental organizations and the military, balancing his studies and personal life, and overcoming challenges that would cause most to simply quit. I especially appreciate Rye’s honest description of the disappointments in his life without letting them slow him down. Rye’s story is one that every person could benefit from hearing.” I can’t wait to read the book myself, and hear Rye at Gibson’s.

I’ve started Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams, who is coming to Gibson’s on April 21, and so far it’s fascinating. I want to read all  kinds of things; my bedside piles continue to overflow, plus I’ve re-discovered some to-reads on the shelves as I re-organized.  For Lent, I’m reading Opening To You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, by Norman Fischer, which I found at the St. Michael’s library book sale shelf.

On April 23, I am planning to attend the Five Colleges Book Sale once again, and I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll find. And now that I have an IPad, I am probably going to have to see what the e-book fuss is all about, so I’ll be able to discuss physical versus e-books intelligently. Stay tuned!

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Many of the books I read this month deal with hunger, literal or figurative.  I love good food, literal or literary, and often pick up what I’m craving — more poetry, for example, or a novel to get lost in.  I had a varied diet of books this month, so let’s dig in. (Pause for audible groans and an appreciative grin from my dad, who gave me the pun gene, which he inherited from his uncle.)

I was over at the beautiful Ohrstrom Library with Teen the Elder, who was doing research for his Shakespeare essay. I love perusing their new books shelf, where I picked up Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection, by Robert Coles.  In this amazing text, Coles asks readers to consider the moral education we receive by examining others’ lives and our own through reading.

Based on his Harvard course, the book is a combination of insightful commentary on art, literature, and music as it reflects our culture and society, and reflections on Coles’ long academic and literary career. He’s known a wide range of cultural giants, from William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy to Paul Tillich and Ruby Bridges.

Coles has explored spirituality, sociology, psychology, and culture in a wide range of writing and editing, with much of his work examining class, age, and gender in the context of whatever subject he addresses (such as his books on morality, spirituality, and political thought in children).  He’s very prolific and very well read, so the book is packed with thoughts and references. I wished as I read that I had time to do all of the recommended reading for each chapter.

This isn’t light reading, it’s a series of lectures by one of America’s great thinkers, and it merits re-reading sometime when I can really delve into it.  For someone like me who loves the way reading creates and encourages connections, this is a book to savor; it will feed your soul and your heart, as well as your mind. One thing I took away from Handing One Another Along is that I am a happier reader when I take time to read thoughtfully, to reflect on ideas — meaning, truth, aesthetics, ethics — as I read.

Three novels I read this month use the art of fiction to explore what makes us human, what we mean to each other, and what our choices do to us and to our society, for good or ill.  They all deal with our human longing for love. All three are books I picked up at WI6.

I met Rachel Simon, author of a number of books, including Riding the Bus With My Sister, at the WI6 author reception. Her novel The Story of Beautiful Girl is coming out in May. It’s a thought provoking read, one you will probably want to devour in a night or two, as I did. Simon reveals the terrible history of institutionalizing the disabled by telling a story so compelling and beautiful, so heart-breaking yet also heartening, you will not be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens next.

The book begins in 1968, on a rainy night in the Pennsylvania countryside, where we meet the girl of the title, Lynnie, and the man she loves, Homan, as they try to escape the institution where they’ve both lived since childhood. In a few swift pages, Simon sets the scene — these two are desperate not for their own well being, but for the baby Lynnie has just delivered. They choose (for a reason that readers learn later) to knock on the door of a widowed schoolteacher, Martha, who hides the baby as the police close in.

From there, the book traces the lives of the baby, Julia, and Martha, whose life changes entirely because of her promise on that one confusing night, as well as Lynnie, who is taken back to the institution, and Homan, who remains on the run.  The people who help or harm these four central characters, the ways their lives turn on small moments that set them on new courses, and the way they each deal with the uncertainty life deals them make the novel a page turner.  And the undercurrent of the entire novel is the social history of institutionalizing the disabled in America.

Both of the other novels I read were set in other countries. More on that in a moment. The Tiger’s Wife, due out next week, is by Tea Obreht, who has the distinction of being the youngest  person on the New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” list. She was also at WI6. She’s certainly an amazing talent. I thought to myself several times as I read, “She’s in her 20’s! How did she write something this complex, this nuanced, this richly imagined already?”

I’m a fan of magical realism — perhaps because as a Spanish and English double major, I took a contemporary Latin American literature class in college and got a taste of some of the early masters of this literary technique (In Spanish!  I marvel at that now).  I especially enjoy elements of magical realism that blend with political and social history.  I would like to make a bold statement here and say that The Tiger’s Wife is among the best examples of this kind of writing I have ever read.

Set in a Balkan country after the war of the 1990’s, the story is told by a young doctor, Natalia. Through Natalia’s recollections, readers learn about her beloved grandfather, himself a doctor, who has recently died alone in a town now part of a different country. Through the stories he told her as a child and the things she learns as she searches for clues to his solitary death and possible last encounter with a mysterious man who seems immortal, Natalia pieces together a story from her grandfather’s boyhood, one he never told her.

There’s no way I can do justice to this phenomenal novel in a few sentences. The writing is excellent — vivid, but clean, and as my grandmother would say, there’s not one thing that doesn’t belong.  The story is incredible; full of cultural and historical detail, fully imagined, and as I said before, complex and nuanced.

By the end of the novel you feel as if you’ve finished a complicated puzzle, or solved a hard cross-word, or stitched the pieces of a pattern perfectly so that not a thread is out of place, and the seams match exactly as they should. Everything falls into place, but artfully, subtly; there are no clanking gears (one critique of Simon’s book is that her book’s pieces fit together rather noisily).

The Tiger’s Wife is about human experience. It’s about love, about family and war and inhumanity and suffering and finally, hope. It’s a book about memory and myth and their intersection, time and mortality and healing. But it’s also a good yarn — a story (several interwoven stories, really) you could read aloud by the fireside, if you were so inclined. I suspect anyone listening would beg you to go on a little longer.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement (which will be out in a couple of weeks) might make you hungry as you read; there are vivid descriptions of pho, because the book centers on the story of an elderly Vietnamese man, Hung, who has been a pho vendor since childhood.  Author Camilla Gibb tells the story of a young Vietnamese American woman, Maggie, who has moved to Hanoi to curate the art collection of a fancy hotel. She has returned to her birth country in part because she wants to learn what happened to her father, a Vietnamese artist who sent her and her mother to America during the war and never rejoined them.

Through Hung’s & Maggie’s memories, and through the observations of a tour guide of Maggie’s generation, Tu, who grew up in Vietnam, Gibb manages to sympathetically expose the idealistic roots of the Vietnamese communist movement. She painfully portrays the betrayal of those who believed (as did their counterparts in many other countries) that communism would bring equality, economic justice, and freedom from social constraints. She shines light on the brave intellectuals, writers, and artists who realized these promises would not be kept but stood firm under enormous pressure, and in many cases imprisonment, torture, or death.

Gibb also describes in heart breaking detail the suffering of ordinary Vietnamese in the post-war years. Hung remembers living in squalor in unwanted land near a pond, and making noodles for his pho out of pond weeds and whatever else he could scavenge. Maggie’s family started in America as refugees do, with nothing, and despite her educational and economic success, she feels she’s lost not only her father, but also her cultural bearings.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a fairly quick read, fascinating, and soulful.  I enjoyed the escapism of reading about another culture and the vivid details that brought the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of Hanoi alive in the novel. Tu, Hung, Maggie, and the host of minor characters, living and remembered, are well drawn and sympathetic characters. The story is interesting, if not particularly complex. I’d like to read Gibbs’ other books, and I think this one would make an excellent read to take along on a trip or to the beach, as would The Story of Beautiful Girl.

One perk of reviewing books and working in a bookstore is that sometimes, publishers and authors send me books. I have to pinch myself, really, at my good fortune — books arriving unbidden. Too good to be true!  One that landed on my front step this month is a very unique, very interesting sort of YA novel, Snotty Saves the Day, from a small press, Exterminating Angel.

I say sort of YA because this is a “crossover” book, in my opinion in both directions. I think a mature, well read pre-adolescent reader might like it, and there is some adult appeal here too, especially for fans of Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Susanna Clark, or Lev Grossman  (and no doubt others I’m forgetting). Snotty is a boy (or is he?) who lives a hard life in a rough neighborhood. On one fateful evening after completing a drug deal, Snotty falls down a rabbit hole.  From there, he undergoes a series of strange experiences and challenges and must decide, through his choices, whether to accept his destiny (and which version of his destiny is real).

Like Susanna Clark’s magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one of my favorite books, and many works by Nicholson Baker, Snotty Saves the Day features fictional footnotes that add another layer to the novel.  Author Tod Davies, through the voice of Prof. Devindra Vale, explains the history of a country called Arcadia, its long political conflict with neighboring Megalopolis, and the  history and cultural significance of fairy tales in the two places. Between Snotty’s adventures and the footnotes, several themes emerge.

Davies touches on assumptions about childhood, social standing, and gender, the importance of fantasy and fairy tales (and the lack of respect given to these), the nature of conflict, poverty’s impact on the imagination — all very Big Ideas. She explores habitual thought — the way we believe something because that’s what we’ve been told, rather than noticing what is right before our eyes.

But these themes are wrapped in wonders such as a mysterious 7th garden on a street with 6 houses,  soldier gnomes, giant teddy bears, magical castles, talking animals, and so forth.  What could have been simply “messagey” is a romp, and an original one at that.  When Snotty Saves the Day comes out in May, give it to a smart, precocious young person in your life, read it yourself, and see what kind of interesting conversation develops.

My effort to read poetry more regularly was aided by a wonderful reading at Gibson’s in February, part of the monthly series organized by Don Kimball and the Poetry Society of NH. Don brought the first two poets in the Hobblebush Granite State Poetry series to the store. Publisher (and fellow poet) Sid Hall introduced the poets, Charles Pratt and Becky Sakellariou.

Sakellariou’s book, Earth Listening is full of light and beauty, like Greece, where she’s spent much of her life and where many of these poems are set. One poem begins, “The words in my mouth/are the tides and sands/of the Ionian Sea.” Even poems set in New Hampshire are luminous landscapes. “Intermittent Observations” opens with, “The tangle of the autumn moon/licks the lines of the Contoocook River . . . .”

Earth Listening is full of poems tied to land and sky, sea, plants, earth. But it’s also a book filled with people, dead and alive. Sakellariou writes of the “women of my tribes,” of New England and Europe (besides Greece, she has spent time in Bulgaria and Albania). She writes of longing and love, of mystery and meaning, of faiths and of finding her way.  I found the poems in this collection prism-like — turn them one way, and you see one color, one pattern of light, turn them another, and some other bright gleam catches your eye.  In her poems I sense an old soul. She also writes sensuously of food, from paximadia after a funeral to luscious fruits, herbs, and a poem called, “The Avocado.”

Pratt’s book, From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, is different in style and sensibility, but equally enjoyable. Pratt slips rhyme and formalism into thoroughly contemporary work.  His use of structure and rhyme doesn’t impede the poems from falling naturally across the page or the tongue — he is usually so subtle and skilled in his use of form that it is an organic part of his writing.  Only one or two poems felt deliberately rhymed.

Many of the poems in this collection reflect Pratt’s many years tending his apple orchard in southern New Hampshire.  “November: Sparing the Old Apples,” for example, is about choosing not to cut down the old trees, which he describes as “Cracked urns of air, broken-winged umbrellas,/Black seabirds drying angular wings on a rock –”  Many of the poems describe the apple trees in interesting ways, as in “Interlude,”  which tells of a farmer sledding in the first snow, “While orderly ranks of apples stand appalled,/Black-robed widows, blurring with your speed . . . .”

One of my favorites is “Into Place,” which is about Pratt seeing the farm for sale and finding himself it’s new proprietor, “. . . something less than owner, more than guest. You fertilize and mow, attend the slow/Growth of apples readying for harvest,/And settle into place like leaves or snow,/Unfold like a letter delivered as addressed.”  That’s a really wonderful image.  I hear a koan or a bit of poetic philosophy — be at home where you are —  in those lines.

There are poems about marriage and family, memories and travel in this book, but the orchard poems stand out.  I think they exemplify Pratt’s quiet, lyrical skill. Sid Hall and Rodger Martin (whose book The Battlefield Guide I reviewed here last year) have done a marvelous job with the new series. The books are also beautifully designed, inside and out. I look forward to future volumes.

Last weekend I finished Margaret Roach’s lovely memoir, and I shall have some peace there: trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road. Roach is coming to Gibson’s on Tues., March 8, and I can’t wait to meet her. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It asks the questions Eat, Pray, Love meant to– what happens when a person is faced with enormous changes in social identity? How can a person be at peace in an uncertain world and during personal uncertainty? What about love, if you’re alone?

Roach asks more than she answers, and is honest about how messy it is to live with questions as your constant companions, to reflect, to work on becoming who you’re  meant to be. This memoir is light years wiser and smarter than other books I’ve read in this milieu.  In fact, my one quibble with Roach is that she doesn’t give herself enough credit.

She mentions more than once that she has an “incomplete education,” even though she worked for some of the most successful, far-reaching media companies around (the New York Times and Martha Stewart Omnimedia, to name two), she is widely read and has a deep and broad knowledge of the natural world and gardening.  She’s created her own blog, a way to garden, and The Sister Project. And the memoir is very much about her spritual/psychological/emotional seeking — she is very self-aware and has explored her own inner world more deeply than most people ever will.

It’s hard to say what I liked best about and I shall have some peace there. The fact that I can identify with many things Roach addresses (facing fears, seeking a genuine life, figuring out what that means, understanding oneself, finding a true identity beyond what you do and who you’re with, letting your inner cat person emerge after years of being a non-cat person), even though our lives are wildly disparate? The way that Roach writes both gracefully and deeply?  Her unique style, full of little asides to herself, that lends the book a one-woman-show feeling? Or the fantastic words she uses? (I kept a list in my journal: senescence, diapause, shamanic, liminal, crepuscular, volition)

Perhaps the summary is that this is a memoir and she keeps it personal, but Roach also writes in a way that trusts readers to be fellow travelers — she writes about big things she is working out, but understands that as human beings, we’re all on the same path in our own lives. There’s no “shock and awe” here, which to me is a terrible trend in memoirs. Roach writes in way that makes her feel like the friend you’ve lost touch with and are catching up with.

I’m going to be brief with the rest of the bookconscious household, because they were brief in their descriptions of what they read. One aside — I find the current cultural conversation about the “princessification” of girls very interesting, because one of my first bookconscious posts (from 2007, when Teen the Younger was only 10) concerned her frustration with Disney Princesses and her desire to read about strong girls (princesses or not).

That child is now Teen the Younger.  She recently marched into a salon with a copy of one of her favorite Manga, Gakuen Alice, opened it to a drawing of Hotaru, and told the stylist that’s how she wanted her hair. She’s had long hair most of her life, but had no doubts, no wavering. And no second guessing later. She didn’t get that from me! Did a steady diet of strong female characters in literature help her be confident in herself?

That’s probably not the only source of her strength, but it had to have helped. Still even though we’ve always talked to our kids about being aware that they’re being marketed to, she’s looking to pop culture to inform her style. Manga, instead of princesses, but someone else’s aesthetic. I worry that despite our precautions she’s over-exposed to commercialism. But I know she’s at an age where it’s common to try on style identities, and at least she’s choosing for herself.  I admire her decisiveness!

One of Teen the Younger’s favorite manga this month is Nabari No Ou.   She says it reminds her of another favorite, Naruto, except the story is more complex. The main character is a boy who discovers he has his village’s secret ninja technique inside him. Other villages have their own secret techniques. Rivalry and trouble ensues. At least, as near as I can tell from the bits she shared with me.

Teen the Elder finished Paul Johnson‘s Churchill. He really enjoyed Johnson’s language, which is true to my grandmother’s admonition to make sure that every word counts, with nothing left out and nothing extra.  He also reads an enormous amount of news — not only of the sports world, but current affairs. I can’t tell you how often I say, “did you hear . . . ” and he finishes the sentence with whatever breaking news I was about to discuss.

When he was younger he was into weather (which he still checks more frequently than I do), now it’s news as well. He likes to be informed, as did Churchill, who read multiple newspapers every day.  And what Teen can resist the idea of working from the comfort of one’s bed, another famous Churchill habit? Actually, this one. Even when he is sick, he has a hard time staying in bed.  But he did recommend that I work in bed when I was sick this month.

The Computer Scientist hit the graphic novels this month. He read V for Vendetta and Ghost In the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface. He says both of them are in depth stories with great illustrations. He was checking out dystopian tales since that seems to be Teen the Younger’s taste these days. He recently shared The Matrix and Inception with her, and Ghost In the Shell was one of the influences on the creators of The Matrix.  He likes trippy, philosophically complex stories — these stories and films explore human identity, consciousness, reality, and illusion. I think he’d love The Tiger’s Wife, which explores some of the same ideas.

One thing that makes us human is that hunger to know more, to understand more, to push our minds farther, to seek the existence and nature of our souls.  Books are not the only sustenance for this kind of hunger nor even other arts — I’d say nature, friendship, love, and spiritual practice are all food for seeking minds.  But without books, we’d surely be malnourished.

What’s on my to-read pile next? I’ve nearly through with Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell — very good history, with a tinge of smartly dressed humor. It reminds me of a Bill Bryson book; much denser than you expect given how much fun the author seems to be having. I look forward to meeting Sarah on March 24. I’ve also got Caitlin Shetterly‘s Made for You and Me and a thick stack of books coming out in April.  Another book I found at Ohstrom is Made for Goodness, by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu.  I’ve been working my way through The Making of  a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology for a couple of years and the end is in sight, and I’ve also got Jeff Friedman‘s new collection, Working In Flour.

Too many books? Perhaps, but what sweet indulgence.

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Literature is often a way to look at the big questions, the same questions philosophers, theologians, and ordinary humans have wrestled with forever. In December the books I read dealt with how one can find happiness in life; each book has a slightly different take, and only a couple of them address the search for happiness directly. But as I so often discover when I reflect on a month’s worth of reading, I gravitated towards a theme, unconsciously or not, or I see a theme after the fact that threads through the month’s book pile.

Before I get carried away discussing the pursuit of happiness, I want to mention what the rest of the bookconscious household read — something I never got to in my last post. December is one of the two busiest months of the year for the Computer Scientist. He works in development, and lots of people give at the end of the year. So he was hard pressed to make time to read, but he did finish Tinkers and is enjoying Citizens of London. I blogged about Citizens last spring, and I noticed he’s been reading it more frequently since we went to see The King’s Speech.

Since I’ve spent a lot of time and word count praising Tinkers I’ll quote the Computer Scientist and leave it at that. He says, “The threaded story structure and beautiful descriptive language made Tinkers a very good read. The book is short enough to read straight-through and that might be a better approach than a “here and there” read as keeping the threads straight is a fun challenge of the book. I especially like how Harding uses similar imagery across the story for different characters and situations.”

Teen the Elder spent the first three weeks of December pondering and writing about ambition in Macbeth, comparing Macbeth’s ambition with Hitler’s. He read several pieces of literary criticism and chapters of history books on Hitler, and started reading Kate L. Turabian Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers.  I implored him to read for fun; other than the poem of the week, soccer blogs, articles on the Guardian, New York Times, and Fox Soccer sites, he mostly read academic tomes and textbooks (including the door-stopping Handbook of Bird Biology).

Quick aside: for Christmas, I gave the Computer Scientist and the Teens two books by Salman Rushdie to share: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life. I sincerely hope that will be soul-feeding, enjoyable reading for all of them. I thoroughly enjoyed Haroun when I read it a few years ago, and I look forward to Luka.

Teen the Younger continued reading Manga. She read further volumes of Naruto and Full Metal Alchemy as well as Gakuen Alice. She also tried a new series called Bleach, in which the hero meets a soul reaper who feels sorry for him when monsters called hollows attack his family. The soul reaper shares her power with him so he can save his family, who then don’t remember the monsters, but instead think a truck hit their house. Like all Manga, this is just the beginning — there are several additional volumes.

She also read most of Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  When I asked how these were, Teen the Younger told me that after Harry Potter, nothing is really good reading. (Her brother says Lord of the Rings is the only thing that ever satisfied him after HP, although he developed a fondness for T.S. Eliot’s poetry later). She thought Hunger Games was okay, and has asked for the next book in the series, but she didn’t rave about it.

Her critique of The Lost Hero vindicates my earlier criticism of YA fiction. She also told me, “Much of The Lost Hero is about teen angst, and while that’s probably realistic, it’s kind of annoying to have to read it over and over.” She went on to say that even Percy Jackson, which she enjoyed, got repetitive in the later books of the series. She asked me why so many authors write in series instead of a single good book, since they end up repeating themselves.

A good question. She doesn’t seem to have this complaint about Manga. When I asked her why, she said it’s because Manga are a continuing story, without much repetition.  Since they are serialized, readers understand from the first that the story will be told in parts. Perhaps some novels that are meant to both sell as standalone stories and fit into a series don’t manage the same continuity?

Like Teen the Younger (and Teen the Elder, if he would lighten up a bit), I like a well told story and interesting characters.  Even more I like a book that give me something to think about (they do too, although they might not put it that way).  Jane Gardam‘s God On the Rocks provides all of that.

Even though the story centers on a young girl, God On the Rocks deals with complex problems  and issues,– family and romantic relationships, religion, the impact of war on a society, class, gender roles, parenting. Gardam packs so much into this small gem of a novel; but it all unfolds naturally. There is nothing forced or contrived. And it’s a good story, one that surprised and delighted me, gave me pause, and stayed with me after I reached the ending.  It’s really a perfectly constructed, wonderful book.

Margaret, the girl in the story, is just right; Gardam is one of those writers who hasn’t lost the voice of childhood.  The adult characters too are multi-dimensional and fully drawn; even bit players, like the parish priest, are rendered vividly. I am still not sure how Gardam managed this — it’s a short book — and I think it would be worth re-reading  to study her writing more closel

The characters in God On the Rocks are all trying to find out who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to live. Margaret watches, listens, and feels — and we see her trying to work things out in her mind, as the adults struggle along. Everything happens during one summer between the two world wars. Without tying everything up neatly in a bow, Gardam provides closure as the characters gather many years later at the end of the book. Again, she does this subtly, respecting the reader’s intelligence and leaving some things open to discussion, even as she resolves others.

Another novel I read this month leaves more questions than answers at the end. The Calligrapher’s Secret, by Syrian born German author Rafik Schami, is a fascinating read. Schami brings the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of Syria alive in his writing. I thought of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as I read, because just as the political, religious, and cultural backdrop of the Partition are key to that book, Syrian history, politics, culture, and religion make The Calligrapher’s Secret tick.

On one level this book is a delightful coming of age tale, weaving together the stories of a Christian boy (Salman) and a Muslim girl(Noura), from different socio-economic backgrounds, as they grow up in Damascus and eventually fall in love. Each of them faces difficulties in their families and in society, but their intelligence and pluck, and the resilience of the human spirit, see them through. Their stories carry the novel along, with frequent digressions into fascinating subplots and rich sensory detail.

But there is so much more going on in The Calligrapher’s Secret than the coming of age and love stories; Schami spins a sprawling, entrancing tale and peoples it with a vast cast of characters. As with a Rushdie novel, the density of Schami’s writing and the cultural depth makes for slow but ultimately satisfying reading. True to the title, there are many secrets in the plot, some of which are never completely resolved, but that’s how life works, too.

I was so entranced by the vivid portrayal of Damascus that I requested Stephanie Saldana’s memoir of her time in Syria, The Bread of Angels, on inter-library loan; I look forward to reading more about this complicated, ancient place.

Another place I enjoyed reading about in December is much more familiar. In Lisa Genova‘s new novel,  Left Neglected, the main character and her family have a home in rural Vermont. I’ve only spent a bit of time in Vermont but I enjoy it, and the family’s simple, pleasant home in a small town sounds very appealing.

In Left Neglected, Vermont is where the power couple main characters spend weekends, if they can get away from their busy lives in the Boston suburbs. Sarah and Bob have it all, including three children (whose names, believe it or not, are Lucy, Charlie, and Linus — a whimsical detail, but one that works), a wonderful nanny, and as I mentioned, high powered jobs. Only Bob is afraid he’ll be losing his, and Sarah is multi-tasking her way through life, telling herself she’s perfectly happy, but challenging Bob to “rock, paper, scissors” to see who gets to drive straight to work without having to drop off the kids on the way.

Then Sarah has a car accident (while dialing her phone — scary), and wakes up without being aware of her left side anymore. It’s still functioning, but her brain isn’t able to tell. Left doesn’t exist. Imagine that — half of you, half of the world, unrecognizable. To go from on top of the world to almost helpless in an instant, it’s almost impossible to think about.

But Genova writes movingly of the post-crash adjustment, as Sarah’s have-it-all life grinds to a halt. I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what would happen next. It sounds cliched to say that Sarah re-examines her life, her priorities, and her relationships in light of the accident, but she does — and who wouldn’t?

I don’t want to give away too much, so I won’t tell you how it all works out. But I will say that one of the things I liked best about Left Neglected is the depth of detail about Sarah’s condition, left neglect. Genova did a great deal of research, and it shows. One amazing organization that helped her, New England Handicapped Sports Association, plays a big part in Left Neglected‘s dénouement, and I am pleased to add that a portion of book sales at Lisa Genova’s reading at Gibson’s on Jan. 20 will benefit NEHSA.

Another book that deals with prioritizing what’s important in life is Alan Bennett‘s The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady In The Van.  I read and blogged about Clothes last winter. Gibson’s book club discussed the edition that also includes Lady this past Monday. We spent a lot of time pondering why Bennett put the two pieces together — he says in the introduction that there isn’t a particular connection he was trying to make. But we came up with some of our own.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella, and our group decided it’s a very theatrical one; most of us could visualize the book as a play or movie. It concerns a middle aged, childless couple, the Ransomes, who are burgled so thoroughly that even the toilet paper is gone. They eventually find out their entire apartment has been reassembled meticulously in a storage facility.  Mrs. Ransome begins to examine her life, after the trauma of the break-in and the strangeness of the aftermath, while Mr. Ransome seems unchanged. Much more occurs, but I don’t like to spoil plots here.

The Lady In the Van is nonfiction, and it’s the story of Miss Shepherd, who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s garden for many years. She is eccentric, perhaps even mentally ill, but she is irrepressibly independent.  Most of our book club members found her appealing; despite the hardships of her life, she lived exactly as she chose, and her indomitable spirit is admirable.

Despite the sadness  and seriousness which tinges both stories, Bennett’s writing is sharp and often quite funny. Our book club had a good time talking about the possible parallels and obvious contrasts between the fictional Ransomes and the real Miss S. We also talked about Bennett’s honest portrayal of his own involvement — while he let Miss S. park on his property, treated her kindly, and was protective of her, he limited her use of his bathroom, and admits he sometimes watched her without offering assistance.

What I believe ties the two pieces together is dignity. Bennett can be biting and he openly dislikes Mr. Ransome, inserting himself into the text to tell readers that he could have softened the character a bit but didn’t. He’s also quite up front about Mrs. S’s faults. But he treats Mrs. Ransome respectfully, as he did his unconventional neighbor.  As a result, Bennett portrays each woman as a person seeking whatever small happiness she can find in this crazy world, and he forgives their foibles.

It seems to me that Bennett admires these two flawed women, one real and one imagined, for the way they each maintain their dignity in the face of unusual circumstances.  Bennett shows us that happiness may not look like what we’d expect, but that it can blossom in strange ways in our lives. I found this book very hopeful reading as another year of recession and war came to a close, and as we put the emotional turmoil of early college admissions behind us in the bookconscious house.

(I know you’re dying to know: Teen the Elder was accepted at a couple of wonderful colleges and was offered scholarships at both. Stay tuned.)

Another author who considers happiness and finds dignity in all her subjects is Maira Kalman. I’ve always admired her work, and I gave the bookconscious household Kalman’s new book,  And the Pursuit of Happiness, for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with Kalman, I recommend this interview with NHPR’s Virginia Prescott on Word of Mouth. You can also check out her blog.

And the Pursuit of Happiness is as quirky and colorful as Kalman’s other work; I can’t think of many other authors who can write whimsical, admiring prose about a sewage treatment plant.  But she approaches that topic (and visits said plant in Brooklyn) the same way she approaches a town meeting in Vermont, and visits to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Fort Campbell, and the Supreme Court. Also school gardens and the Capitol’s bipartisan bathrooms. And much more.

Kalman writes about democracy, history, and pie. Her penchant for cleaning and Lincoln’s possibly cross-eyed dog. Immigration, New York’s City Hall, and museums. Obama’s inauguration and Jefferson’s slaves. Each of the twelve chapters of the book (one per month, for a year of jaunts in  “pursuit of happiness”) is illustrated with Kalman’s exuberant, rich paintings and an occasional photograph. Not everyone will warm to her style, but I love it. Reading Kalman’s books makes me want to sit down with her over a pot of tea and plate of delicious goodies and talk.

Around mid-December I was pretty sure I was done buying books for Christmas but a small volume caught my eye at Gibson’s: Christmas Poems, a pocket sized anthology published by New Directions. This little book is a gem.  Plenty of familiar poems, including Clement’s  “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” and Hardy’s “The Oxen,” and lots of poems I wasn’t familiar with, by poets I hadn’t thought of in terms of their holiday work.  Creeley, Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Whitman, and Rilke, to name a few.  A thoughtful, interesting little collection.

I’ve saved the two most serious books for last, the two that overtly wrestle with meaning, truth, and the pursuit of the kind of unselfish happiness that makes the world a better place. One is a primarily a memoir, the other a manual, but each has a bit of both in it. One is by a man who almost became a priest, the other by a woman who is a former nun. If you’re in the mood for a deeply intelligent, finely crafted, searching read, you can’t go wrong with either.

One of the most moving books I read in 2010 won’t be out until May 2011, The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak.  In December I read his memoir, A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, which is the story of his time with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.  He spent eight years learning, working, praying, and living in Jesuit communities before leaving the order.

The Long Retreat is a tribute to the mentally, spiritually, physically arduous journey to priesthood. It’s also a love letter to the faith and those who devote their lives to it.  The book is also an appreciation of the mystery of beauty, as manifested in literature, liturgy, the natural world, and the world of ideas. And it’s a young man’s exploration of his roots as well as his potential, an intellectual coming of age story.

So it’s complicated. Dense. Riveting, even a bit painful. Krivak doesn’t whitewash his own journey or minimize the challenges. He’s a very fine writer and thinker, and in The Long Retreat readers learn that he was a graduate of a “great books” college, St. John’s in Annapolis, and of Columbia University’s MFA program, before he entered the Jesuits. If you’ve wanted to understand what it is to live an examined life, to become spiritually disciplined, to seek with all your heart and soul towards a committed life of service, or to fulfill a deep thirst for beauty, The Long Retreat will inspire you.

Krivak infuses both the The Sojourn and The Long Retreat with a strong sense of agape, the compassionate love C. S. Lewis describes as an unselfish, devoted commitment to others, and the King James Bible translators called “charity.” In both his novel and his memoir, Krivak writes of people who make others’ lives better through their loving kindness, whether for a moment or a lifetime. It seems to me (and perhaps I’ll get to ask him about this in the spring) that Krivak’s writing explores the human potential for compassion. Some of the people in his books rise to that call and engage in it, others are caught up in pettiness, selfishness, or hubris.

All of which are also part of human potential — and Karen Armstrong writes, in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, that we can choose to strengthen our compassionate mental and spiritual response by exercising our hearts and minds the way we can strengthen our body by exercising our muscles. I read Armstrong’s latest book on New Year’s Day evening, and signed onto the Charter for Compassion. I plan to encourage the rest of the bookconscious household to read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I’ve already begun to go back through each chapter slowly, with a mind to strengthening my own compassion.

Armstrong is a fine writer and historian, and she opens Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life with a review of the role of compassion in the tenets and traditions of the major world religions. Throughout the book, she writes of her own life experience and uses her own struggles as an example to those who might find her suggestions daunting. In this way the book is both wise and grounded, as Armstrong’s writing generally is. I can think of no other contemporary writer who distills the big questions and ideas of mankind’s quest for Truth into such clear prose.

After the survey of compassion in history and religion, Armstrong provides clear steps, one chapter at a time, that individuals or groups can follow to become more compassionate. They are practical, sensible, and doable — although challenging.  From learning about compassion to thinking, speaking, and acting in mindful awareness of those around us, Armstrong believes we are all capable of letting go of our preconceptions, our misunderstandings, and our bad habits and learning to love even our enemies.  Mindfulness is hard in and of itself, as I’ve often written here.  But with as capable a guide as Armstrong leading the way, the path to compassionate living seems fairly straightforward.

So I’ll keep re-reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I have a few more entries left in Watch for the Light; last night’s reading was T.S  Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” which alternately makes me smile and shudder. Also in my to read pile: new books I received for Christmas from the Computer Scientist and the Teens, including Oxfam’s Ox-Tales short story collection. I started the Earth volume and am enjoying the stories very much.  I have three piles of books by the side of the bed, and a couple of piles in other places.  Here’s to a new year of books!

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On World AIDS Day, the bookconscious household attended our community’s interfaith service. Our friend and deacon, Brother Charles Edward (or B.C.E., as he’s known), pointed out that when the AIDS pandemic began, people lived in the shadow of death, but now, we’re living in the light of hope. I thought that was beautiful.

Just the night before, I set up a BeadforLife table at the Songweavers annual “pahty,” where we eat, raise money for the Songweavers scholarship fund, and sing.  The last song of the evening, which I’ve been singing fragments of ever since, was the South African hymn Siyahamba, which spread around the world when the Swedish choral group Fjedur recorded it in 1978. The chorus in English is “We are marching (or walking) in the light of God.”  So I had one of those moments as I listened to B.C.E., where  interconnectedness hummed through my brain.

When I sat down two nights ago, after several long days of chores, projects, and activities related to this season of light, to look at the books I read in November and contemplate this month’s bookconscious post, I realized that much of my reading fits this Big Idea of walking into light, leaving darkness, whether literal or metaphorical, behind. I wouldn’t say this was a conscious choice, as my reading pile is often in flux and usually eclectic. But it’s possible I was seeking connections after a very hectic fall; I probably needed a Big Idea to quiet the scattering of thoughts that B.C.E. reminded us we all deal with, what Buddhism calls “monkey mind.”

Poets have dealt with this theme for as long as there has been poetry. Two collections I read this month include excellent examples of the human need to get through darkness and return to light.  In Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New & Selected Poems, “Cloud” describes the experience of walking the woods when a cloud engulfs the treetops. Ryan writes, “From inside the/forest it seems/like an interior/matter, something/wholly to do/with trees, a color/passed from one/to another, a/requirement/to which they/submit unflinchingly/like soldiers or/brave people/getting older.”  The dimming of light is something bigger than us, like war or aging.

But Ryan’s poems are often hopeful, and “Cloud” ends with these matter-of-fact lines: “Then the sun/comes back and/it’s totally over.”    “The Fourth Wise Man,” is a topic that’s a literary staple, and Ryan’s pictures him as one who “. . . far preferred/to be inside in solitude/to contemplate the star/that had been getting/so much larger . . .”  Too much light is as challenging to the status quo as too little.  And in “A Cat/A Future,” Ryan compares a cat’s ability to “. . .draw/the blinds/behind her eyes . . .”  to the way “a future can occlude:/still sitting there/doing nothing rude.”  We’re going to be in the dark sometimes, and that’s life.

In Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser is literally starting in darkness writing poems, as his doctor tells him to avoid the sun while he’s undergoing cancer treatment. In the introduction to the book, he explains that this was a time of emotional darkness as well, but that pre-dawn walks and the quiet poems he wrote afterward helped him heal.

Each of the hundred poems in this book is dated, and each begins with a title that describes the weather that morning, like “Clear and Cool,” or “Sunny and Milder.” This structure, along with the brevity of poems written to fit on postcards, and the common setting (the roads and fields around Kooser’s home in early morning) make the collection very cohesive. Some of the poems are just a few lines, and others are only one sentence. The idea of a poem just a few breaths long is appealing to me, because I love Japanese forms, and although Kooser doesn’t include any haiku here, many pieces have the same aesthetic as the prose portion of a haibun.

While darkness and light run all through Winter Morning Walks, a couple of images really struck me. “december 2 Clear and cool,” begins, “Walking in darkness, in awe/beneath a billion indifferent stars,” and goes on a few lines later to show us the path Kooser walks: “. . . the gravel/that, faintly lit, looks to be little more/than a contrail of vapor,/so thin, so insubstantial it could,/on a whim, let me drop through it/and out of the day. . . .”

The real light of the stars is cold and awe inspiring, “indifferent” to human activity. The imagined light, the “contrail” of the barely visible gravel path, makes walking on solid ground seem as tenuous an activity as falling through vapor. Kooser concludes this powerful poem with the sound of his own feet as he walks, “in noisy confidence/as if each morning might be trusted,/as if the sounds I make might buoy me up.” His body, once frail with illness, tells him he’s alive.

In “March 10 Quiet and cold at 6am,” Kooser observes: “At dawn, in the roadside churchyard/the recent, polished headstones glance and flash/as if the newly dead were waving pink placards/protesting the loss of their influence./But the soft old marbles, grainy from weather/and losing their names, have a steady glow/like paper bags with candles lit inside,/lining a path, an invitation.”  A lovely, haunting little poem. I admire the freshness of these images. Kooser’s suggestion that eventually, the dead grow used to their worldly light having gone out, and that in death we might encounter a different “steady glow” is comforting.

There’s a lot of death and darkness in the other books I read this month; all of them ultimately suggest a kind of carrying-on-in-spite-of-it-all sensibility.  Milena Agus‘s novel, From the Land of the Moon, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is due out in January. Agus’s narrator tells readers the story of her grandmother, a Sardinian woman who gets married in the midst of WWII.  Grandmother is an exuberant woman, and she has loomed large in the narrator’s life.

As her granddaughter tells it, Grandmother’s life has been difficult, she longs for a lost love, her husband married her out of a sense of duty, and her deep passion has gone unrequited. She’s dealt with darkness, but she’s managed to make a life worth living anyway. Towards the end of the novel (and I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t give the details), we learn that Grandmother’s daughter-in-law, the narrator’s mother, has always known more about Grandmother, but protected her secrets. Once Grandmother is dead, the narrator learns the rest of her story, and later finds her Grandmother’s notebook, which illuminates her life even more.

If I’m being too obscure, let me say that From the Land of the Moon is a beautiful story about how families keep secrets and invent stories to cover them, how memory can be infused with desire until two people might have very different perceptions of something that happened, how appearances might cover dramatically different inner lives. It’s also a book that explores the role of imagination in life, and the blending of imagination and reality into a person’s interior world. In a way, it’s a tribute to the ability of writing to lift someone out of despair.

I don’t know much about Sardinia or about Italy in WWII and the post-war period, so I enjoyed the cultural history Agus provides. Reading literature in translation expands one’s worldview, and I appreciate that.  So far I’ve been impressed with the Europa editions fiction I’ve read and I hope they continue to produce such an interesting list.

Another book that prods the dark corners of perception, misunderstanding, and imagination and comes up with a mostly hopeful view of mankind muddling through into lighter days is Jay Atkinson‘s short story collection Tauvernier Street.  I enjoyed just about all of the stories in the book; when I look at the three I didn’t care for as much I see that they stray from the setting of most of the others, Tauvernier Street or similar surroundings.  Perhaps the book would have been tighter without those three stories, or maybe I was too much in the mood for a distinct thread — my monkey mind liked settling down.

The stories set in gritty New England neighborhoods (or anchored there, even if the characters venture farther afield) examine all manner of human foibles through a wide array of characters. Atkinson comes up with some very fresh, imaginative situations — “The God of This World” is about a terror attack on the real heart of America, the big box home improvement store.  “The Philosophy Shop” is about a man who opens the shop of the title after his father’s death, and tries to seek truth.

Other stories are more straightforward but no less perceptive, and I especially enjoyed “The Art of War,” “God’s Work,” “The Tex Cameron Show,” “Sages,” “The Messenger,” “Radio Call,” and “The Thorndikes of Tauvernier Street.” Atkinson looks at the way people perceive race, class, religion, and culture. Along with the usual emotional conflict between characters that are the bread and butter of short fiction writers, he manages to focus on the small moments of real understanding people are capable of.  These flashes of light — candle flames in the vast darkness of the human psyche — make for good reading.

A master of capturing these slivers of insight and of creating unforgettable characters is Alice Hoffman. I thoroughly enjoyed The Red Garden, due out in January. The chapters of this book take readers from the founding of Blackwell, Massachusetts in 1750, where we meet the indomitable founding mother Hallie Brady, to contemporary times in the town. Some include glimpses of real historical figures, like Emily Dickinson. Others bring ghosts and touches of magical realism, something Hoffman does so very well.

I’m not sure I could choose a favorite chapter of The Red Garden. In each piece, Hoffman introduces characters who are fully drawn in a just few pages, and subtly, quietly, ties each story, each life, to those that came before.  Some characters literally show up in later chapters as they grow older, others reappear in Blackwell town lore, others are present in what they have left behind in the physical and emotional landscape of the place and its people.

It’s fascinating to see how Hoffman wove American history into the book; everything from colonial era homesteading to the Civil War, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression and Vietnam appear.  Hoffman makes cultural references as well as historical ones — in the chapter set in the 1980’s, for example, there are vials of Valium in one character’s medicine chest and a Prince song on a juke box. The dialogue also evolves as Hoffman moves through the decades. There are other books that use the march of time as a plot device, but few that do it so well, and thanks to Hoffman’s masterful use of historical details.

The Red Garden is more than historical fiction. Hoffman examines the way we are connected; people change the human story just, as my grandmother used to say, by being themselves. The world, and in particular Blackwell, is a richer place because of the briefest of encounters between the town’s inhabitants and those passing through, the scantest conscious connections between generations. The town’s earlier citizens work through the later character’s lives by informing their decisions as traces of collective memory, or as real presences, in story and artifact, to their descendants.

Hallie Brady’s spirit and intelligence seems to streak through the town’s figurative DNA.  She walks confidently out of the dark struggle to survive the first winter in Blackwell and into the light of hope; future Blackwellians follow in their own ways. This book will remind you that as we stride around acting (we think) independent and smart and modern, memory, history, and myth are working within us all, in ways we may not even realize.

Jennifer Donnelly‘s fantastic new YA novel Revolution was another page-turning read this month. Like Hoffman, she clearly did a great deal of research.  I have to say right now, I would probably never have picked the book up, since I generally avoid YA titles because of their obsession with presenting kids dealing with all manner of Issues, and this one is no exception. But Gibson’s Random House rep. for young people’s books recommended it, and I am grateful she did.

The main character in Revolution, Andi, is not exactly representative of your average kid. She’s a senior at an exclusive private school, her parents and friends are all fabulously wealthy or famous or both, and she is dealing with the psychological aftermath of her younger brother’s death and her parents’ divorce. Hence my usual “Issue alert” was on — I find this kind of piling on of what I consider to be unrealistic amounts of problems and backstory to be a major detractor that turns me off to a fair bit of YA literature (I didn’t even mention the drugs, relationship problems, and enormous pressure to get into a top college; Andi is also a gifted musician).

Just give teens a good story, I usually gripe. About a kid they can relate to, who isn’t either a basket case dealing with more troubles than a Telenovela queen or burdened with so many talents she can’t quite work out whether to be a genius scientist or a famous musician. This book doesn’t meet any of those criteria. But, our rep. gave it such a glowing recommendation that I decided I’d give it a try, figuring at the least, I’d have a current YA book to talk about with holiday shoppers at Gibson’s.

And I thoroughly enjoyed Revolution. I am very impressed with the complexity of the story and the rich details Donnelly used to bring Andi’s world alive, as well as the world of Alexandrine, another teenaged girl whose life Andi becomes fascinated with when she finds her diary, written during the French Revolution. Andi may not be representative of the average American teen but I grew to love her.  Many of the minor characters are also memorable — everyone from Andi’s best friend, Vijay, to an 18th century French composer (of Donnelley’s imagination, I was sad to learn; he seemed so real) named Malherbeau comes off the page in vivid, living color. Andi’s family friend, G, a French historian, her Holocaust survivor music teacher in Brooklyn, and the strict librarian at a historical archives in Paris are all wonderfully drawn. Even a scary flea market vendor who deals in bones from Paris’s catacombs is creepily realistic.

And the story is very intriguing. As Andi is drawn into Alexandrine’s story, and her research for her senior thesis progresses, their two worlds go from having some parallels to actually colliding. Donnelly, like Hoffman, has written a terrific story saturated in historical details, and like Hoffman dabbles with the supernatural. I don’t think this book should be limited to YA exposure. It’s a good read for adults as well.

One of my favorite things about Revolution is that Andi undergoes a transformation despite all the evidence in her world and Alexandrine’s that the world is brutal and people will never stop being awful to each other. We see her go from a sullen, suicidally depressed kid who’s veering towards disaster (she takes too many of the drugs her psychiatrist prescribes, skips school, and lashes out at the adults who are trying to help her) to a young woman who is able to put her brother’s tragic death to rest, and to help herself heal. But none of this is handled formulaicly — Donnelly delivers this classic theme of troubled adolescent getting her life together with a little help from her friends in a fresh new way. And while there’s a love story (more than one, really, and more than just romantic love), it’s also not cliched.

So, I hereby apologize for writing off most YA fiction and I look forward to finding more good books like Revolution. Which, if you’re keeping score, is very much in keeping with my November reading thread — Andi literally walks out of the darkness of underground Paris and her own psychological and emotional darkness and lives in the light of hope.

Another book that came my way this month and turned out to be just what I wanted to read was Andrew Krivak’s forthcoming novel The Sojourn. This one’s not due out until May, and it’s being published by Bellevue Literary Press, the same small press that published Paul Harding’s Tinkers.  Like From the Land of the Moon, The Sojourn is a book that deals with a piece of history I didn’t know much about.

The Sojourn opens in Colorado, where a young immigrant family is struggling to make a life in America. After his wife dies in an accident (protecting her infant son in her last seconds), the widower returns to his village in Austria-Hungary. He raises the boy, Jozef, to be a shepherd, and takes in a distant cousin’s son, Marian, known as Zlee.  Jozef and Zlee grow up together, and when World War I comes, they go off to fight for the Emperor.

Because of their years of spotting and shooting in defense of their flock and as hunters, they are singled out as a sharpshooting team. This aspect of Word War I was not one I’d read about (quick aside; for a breathtaking novel of life in WWI’s trenches, read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way which I discussed in a bookconscious post a couple of springs ago.)  Most of what I know about WWI, other than what I learned in history classes, I read in Vera Brittain‘s wonderful diaries and memoirs, which my grandmother encouraged me to read when I traveled to England as a college student.

What little I know about the Italian front I read in A Farewell to Arms, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from the point of view of the Austro-Hungarians before The Sojourn.  Krivak captures many of the same depressing aspects of war that others before him have: the futility of defending trenches and attacking out of them, the nationalism among troops fighting for the same cause who are suspicious of each other’s cultures, the cluelessness and egotism of some of the officers, the brutality of war, the filth and degredation, hunger and illness.

But The Sojourn is also a psychological study — Jozef reflects on his upbringing, the family tensions he recalls from boyhood (especially resentment and greed on the part of his stepmother and her thuggish sons). His embarrassment over his father’s low stature in their village and family aggravates him as a young man. His father is a well read independent thinker, who teaches Jozef and Zlee English by reading aloud Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. But in their village, he’s the man who went to America and came back, and therefore a failure.

Like many an adolescent Jozef struggles with knowing this isn’t true, knowing his father’s real worth, and feeling the sting of social embarrassment. When war comes and his father, who reads English newspapers as well, doesn’t believe in the cause of the Hapsburgs, Jozef ignores him and goes to enlist.  Despite his love and respect for his father, Jozef leaves, even as he sees the anguish it causes. Well-tread ground in literature, but Krivak makes it fresh; the characters are unique and believable and you fall under the spell of the story, the way we are lulled into believing our own experiences are unique when we’re having them.

All of this coming-of-age material builds up the narrative, and then Krivak takes his young hero to war. I think this portion of the novel is very well done, even though Krivak continues to deal with familiar territory:  impressionable young soldiers going off to fight, full of confidence and well trained in body and spirit to defend the homeland, becoming disillusioned by the reality of war and finding a way through this struggle into transformation. Perhaps because of the strangeness of sharpshooting — young men trained to hunt other young men — the writing is chilling and sometimes even beautiful.

Again I don’t want to spoil anything, but the final third of the book, with the post-war resolution, Jozef’s coming to terms with the killing he’s done and the losses he’s experienced, and his long journey home, take the book to another level. As fascinating as Jozef’s unorthodox upbringing and sharpshooter experiences are, his slow recovery from the trauma of war and return to everyday humanity is Krivak’s finest accomplishment in the novel.

Small acts of kindness in each part of Jozef’s story, and his lingering vision of his mother as a kind of angel, nourish him, and sustain readers through the bitterest parts of the book. Love —  not only romantic love (which is done well — there is a remarkable, searing love story towards the end of the book, which ties together many of Krivak’s themes of longing and belonging, home and identity), but as in Revolution, love in all its many forms and nuances — restore both Jozef’s and the reader’s confidence that all shall be well again. Krivak takes us through the dark night of the soul and back into the light of hope. I didn’t want it to end.

And The Sojourn has what I consider the perfect ending: hopeful, but not so neatly tied up that you aren’t left with a lingering trace of the book in your mind for several days.  I hope you know just what I mean. In my view, the best books stay with you, working on your own stored memory, fusing themselves with all you’ve read and all you’ve been, incorporating themselves into what you’ll be. Books that last are books that make meaning, that consciously or unconsciously change the way you view the next thing you read, the next idea you consider, the next response you have to the world.  The Sojourn is that kind of book.

Finally, last weekend as Advent began, I started re-reading a collection of essays and poems called Watch for the Light. It’s challenging at this time of year to add to my daily routine, but keeping an advent discipline, I’ve found, is good grounding before the over-abundance of Christmas. This book gathers some of the greatest spiritual writers from several centuries, and some of it is very challenging both to read and to digest. Some of it, I think, may not be digestable; a point that appears in many of the book’s entries is that certain mysteries, such Christmas, are nearly impenetrable.

So it’s seasonal, but I wouldn’t call this book uplifting. Like so many of the other things I’ve read lately, it’s a reminder that dark, uncertain, even troubling thoughts are a part of the human experience and have been forever. So are hope, and more rarely perhaps, joy.  Living is about continuing to help each other through the shadowy bits, so we can all make it into the light.  I’m very glad we live in a world where excellent reading is a part of that, and where it’s possible to excavate an inner world in the midst of a wide community because of writers and readers.

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